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Thursday, January 9, 2020

Crusader States or Colonies?

 Many people today believe that the crusader states were like early colonies -- alien foreign enclaves, ruled by segregationist elites for the benefit of Europe rather than the local residents. It's not surprising. That's what historians have been telling them for about 150 years. Yet modern scholarship -- particularly archaeology -- has exposed the fallacies in this image and interpretation. Below is a short summary and analysis of the "colonial" interpretation of the crusader states.

The “Colonialist” interpretation of the Crusader States first emerged in the early 19th century — when Colonialism was at its height. It originated in France, which at that time was expanding its sphere of influence in the Middle East. Specifically, in 1860 riots in Jerusalem highlighted the degree to which local Christians were oppressed under the Ottomans. “To the French it seemed that the age-old circumstances which 750 years earlier had led to the oppression of Oriental Christianity by the ‘Turks’, and were the cause of the Crusades, were now being re-enacted before their very eyes.” [1]

Soon French scholars were seeing other parallels as well. The French historian Emmanuel Guillaume Rey, who made multiple trips to the Holy Land and conducted archaeological studies of crusader sites, is credited with “creating the “French colonialist justification of the crusades.” [2] His successors praised what they viewed as a unique French talent for fair administration of local populations and the acclimatization of Western elites in an Oriental setting.

The French were not alone. The contemporary British historian Claude Condor also interpreted the crusader states as proto-Colonial entities in which the more developed Westerners brought enlightenment to the backward Middle East. Condor used this scheme to explain the decline of Palestine since the fall of the crusader states, and to advocate for new waves of settlement by industrious people capable of developing a modern infrastructure. Although Condor died in 1910, his theories clearly provided an additional justification for Zionist immigration.

Soon Arab nationalists were also conflating the crusader states with colonialism — but now with a new twist. The crusader states, after all, had been eradicated by the Mamluks. Thus the crusader states were failed colonies. For the first time in hundreds of years, Arab and Muslim interest in the crusades and crusader states developed, but only because these represented the perfect model and inspiration for the defeat of 20th Century colonial empires. Arab independence movements made generous use of role models from the crusades, particularly Salah al-Din, in order to stress the vulnerability of the West and inevitability of Muslim/Arab victory.

Statue of Saladin in modern Damascus
By the mid-20th century, Colonialism was out of favor in the West as well. In the post-Colonial era, Colonialism had become THE great evil. It was blamed for poverty, injustice, dictatorships, corruption and all other difficulties confronting former colonials states, particularly in Africa. Yet by now, the habit of viewing the crusader states as early or proto-colonial adventures had become so ingrained that no one bothered to question the model or seriously examine the assumption.

The apogee of this trend was reached in the late 20th century when the Israeli historian Joshua Prawer propagated an extreme position which drew parallels between the Franks in Outremer and white elites in South Africa. He did not shy from alleging that the Franks in Outremer engaged in what he called “apartheid.” Frankish society in the Holy Land was depicted as a decadent urban elite, collecting rents from oppressed native farmers. Allegedly, the Franks were afraid to venture into the hostile environment of the countryside, not only because of an “ever-present” Saracen threat but also because they were hated by their own tenants and subjects.

Prawer’s thesis, however, has been almost completely discredited by more recent research, particularly meticulous studies and archaeological surveys conducted by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. This research revealed that Frankish rural settlement was much more widespread than had been previously assumed ― without evidence. The Franks, the survey proved, built large numbers of smaller towns and villages, often without walls or fortifications of any kind ― a clear indication that they did not feel threatened as historians hypothesized.

In contrast to the assumptions of earlier historians, the backbone of the Frankish army was composed of rural knights, who drew their income from agriculture not urban “money fiefs.” The knights of Outremer, far from being the decadent pro-Colonial, city-dwellers of legend, were countrymen and farmers, just as they were in Western Europe. Equally significant, the Frankish settlers did not displace the local inhabitants, expelling them from their land and houses. They did not deprive them of either their land or their status. On the contrary, the documentary evidence proves that the Franks were punctilious in recording and respecting the rights of the Syrian inhabitants. Rather than displacing the locals, they built villages and towns in previously unsettled areas or, more commonly, built beside existing towns. Far from exploiting the natives as in 19th and 20th-century colonialism, the Franks co-existed in harmony with the native population.

And who were these settlers? Based on nearly complete records for a sampling of settlements it is possible to show that these settlers came from widely separated areas in the West. For example, in the town of Mahomeria 150 Frankish households were identified with heads-of-household originating in Burgundy, Poitiers, Lombardy, the Ile de France, Bourges, Provence, Gascony, Catalonia, the Auvergne, Tournai, Venice and eight other towns no longer clearly identifiable but apparently in France or Italy. The largest number of families coming from any one place was four.

This helps explain why, as Fulcher of Chartres claimed in his History, the settlers rapidly lost their ties to their “old country” and identified with their new residence. (“We who were Occidentals have now become Orientals. He who was a Roman or a Frank has in this land been made into a Galilean or Palestinian.” Fulcher of Chartres, A History of the Expedition to Jerusalem, 1095-1127, Book II.)

It also explains why the settlement of the crusader states cannot legitimately be conflated with colonialism. Colonies are established by a powerful entity (kingdom, state, city) in a distant, foreign environment for the purpose of enriching the metropolitan center. French colonies were exploited for the benefit of France; British colonies were maintained to make England richer, etc. Settlers and administrators in the colonies came from the “home country,” continued to identify with it, and enforced policies that benefited not the local region/community/population but the distant metropolis.

The crusader states, in contrast, had no “metropolis;” the leaders of the crusades came all across Europe. Nor did settlers come predominantly from a single region. More important, however, the crusader states were independent political entities, represented by independent rulers. Not until the mid-13th century, did absentee Western rulers attempt to impose their will upon the crusader states by sending administrators out to the crumbling kingdom of Jerusalem. Yet even then, they made these claims as Kings of Jerusalem, not as kings of some Western nation.

Significantly, taxes did not flow out of the crusader states into the coffers of distant European kingdoms. No one in the crusader states paid a “stamp tax” or any other duty to a European ruler. The taxes on goods passing through the crusader kingdoms, import and export duties, anchorage, salvage and all the various forms of taxation by which governments gain the revenues necessary to maintain borders, order and justice accrued to NO “Colonial Power” — but to crusader states themselves.

Indeed, for the most part, the fabled wealth of Outremer remained in Outremer, enriching the local population and elites — with the possible exception of the trading fortunes made by the Italian maritime cities. Nor were the crusader states viewed by Europeans as “under-developed” or “backward,” as 19th and 20th century colonies were viewed. On the contrary, for nearly two hundred years, crusaders and pilgrims from the West were awed by and envied the superior standards of living enjoyed by the residents of the crusader states.

In short, while the debate continues and some historians cling to the old notion of the crusader states as “colonies,” the case for this paradigm is weak and largely obsolete. Indeed, using the term “colonies” and attempts to find — or refute — parallels undermines objective research. Rather than looking for artificial similarities, we would do better to focus on fundamental research and original analysis.

[1] Ellenblum, Ronnie, Crusader Castles and Modern Histories (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007) 44.

[2] Ellenblum, 44.

The war against Emperor Frederick II was very much about local elites resisting the attempt of a European monarch to turn them into a kind of "colony" governed by alien laws (the laws of the Holy Roman Empire or Sicily). Read more in my novels set in this important conflict:

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  1. ". . . we would do better to focus on fundamental research and original analysis."

    Ahh. If only so many people weren't . . . deaf.

    Another great analysis, Professor. Keep them coming!


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