Whereas the crusader states in Syria/Palestine were populated by a patchwork of minorities adhering to various faiths, the Kingdom of Cyprus at the time of the crusader conquest was a homogenous state inhabited almost exclusively by Greeks. There were only comparatively small Armenian, Maronite, Jacobite, Coptic, Ethiopian and other Christian communities. Greek was the primary language, and most important, Cyprus had never been fully conquered and occupied by the Muslims. As a result, while the population had paid tribute, it had not been subjected to systematic decimation and humiliation in the form of deportations, enslavement and Islamisation. In short, the Greeks of Cyprus had not yet been ‘dhimmis’; a fate that did not overtake them until the Ottoman occupation. This necessarily impacted their reaction to the Franks and their interactions with them.
As in Syria and Palestine, however, most of the former elites, in this case, the Byzantine aristocratic class, emigrated before the establishment of Frankish rule. The despot Isaac Comnenus had driven most of the Greek landowning class back to Constantinople with excessive taxes, expropriations and tyrannical behaviour before Richard I’s conquest. Of those that remained, some left during the period of transition, while a few aristocratic families remained. Initially, the latter retained land and wealth but did not owe military service and were not feudal vassals. By the fifteenth century, however, even this distinction began to blur, and Greeks were enfeoffed.
In the era of the crusades, Cyprus was overwhelmingly agricultural, and rural inhabitants made up about 95 per cent of the population. The peasants of Cyprus were divided into two categories in accordance with Byzantine practice. There were ‘paroikoi’, unfree peasants tied to the land, similar to serfs in Western Europe, and ‘francomati’, free tenant farmers. The status of these lower classes was not substantially altered under Lusignan rule. For the most part, the new Frankish landowners employed Greek stewards on their estates. They also drew on the services of Greek ‘jurats’, who represented the interests of the communities, analogous to the ‘rais’ that represented the Muslim peasants in the Kingdom of Jerusalem. For the vast majority of peasants, the change of regime was hardly noticeable. While it was no worse than what had gone before, it was also not dramatically better, as in the case of former ‘dhimmis’ on the mainland. With time, increased prosperity brought benefits and growth in the urban population. This, in turn, increased the prices of agricultural products, benefitting the peasant class as well.
The small Greek middle-class was composed of professionals and bureaucrats who had administered the island for Constantinople ever since the Arabs were expelled in the tenth century. The civil servants were often members of the Orthodox clergy and sometimes belonged to ecclesiastical families with generations of government service. (Greek priests could marry, so a career in the church was often a family tradition). Others were remnants or lesser members of the old aristocracy. Otherwise, the middle class consisted of well-educated secular professionals such as doctors, lawyers, translators, accountants and the like.
All these men were invaluable to the Lusignans, who had the sense not only to employ them but to retain the very institutions that the Byzantines had used to administer the island. Thus, although the language of the Lusignan court was French, the Greek administrative class remained in place, evolving into a new Greek ‘aristocracy of the pen’. By the fifteenth century, some members of this wealthy Greek elite had been accepted into the Frankish nobility, although conversion to Latin Christianity was necessary to hold a fief.
As in Latin Syria, the native — in this case, Greek — elites contributed to the defence of the realm by providing the vitally important horse archers of the Cypriot army, misleadingly called ‘turcopoles’. These are recorded not only in royal service but in the service of individual lords, an indication of considerable prosperity for at least some rural Greek families. In the civil war against Emperor Frederick II’s lieutenants (1229-1232) and the Genoese war (1373-1374), the Cypriot Greeks sided with the Franks against the outsiders from the Holy Roman Empire and Italy.
Culturally and socially, the Greeks remained dominant. Although a Latin church was established on the island, the Orthodox Church retained its hierarchy and clergy. The Latin church siphoned off income in the form of land and tithes from the Latin landlords, but the vast majority of the population, including many wealthy patrons, remained Orthodox, enabling the Greek Orthodox Church to prosper throughout Lusignan rule. There was only one incident of persecution of Orthodox clergy in the entire Lusignan era. It was during a civil war in which the ruling king was a minor (and probably not in control) and possibly not present on the island at all.
Furthermore, there was no segregation based on religion or ethnicity. Greeks and Latins lived side-by-side, although the Italian communities voluntarily congregated in the coastal cities. The Latin feudal elite was most heavily concentrated in the capital of Nicosia, while the Italians were present primarily in the ports. Already by the late thirteenth century, the Latin population was commissioning Greek artists to paint icons for personal worship, while in the fourteenth century, the Greek Orthodox were happy to borrow Gothic style elements such as flying buttresses when building a new Orthodox cathedral.
Despite attempts by the pope to prevent intermarriage celebrated according to the Greek rites, by the fourteenth century, such marriages were so common that the Latin Archbishop of Nicosia could only attempt to impose some restrictions over them. Likewise, although Latin remained the language of the High Court, Greek was the language of the streets and much diplomatic correspondence. Greeks learned French and Latin to advance their careers in the Lusignan bureaucracy, while the Franks learned Greek to conduct business on their estates, engage in trade and commerce and participate in cultural activities. Over time, a unique Cypriot dialect evolved, which borrowed many words from French and became the language of the island.
The overall satisfaction of the natives with Frankish rule is reflected in the fact that there was not a single uprising after the establishment of the Lusignan dynasty, nor are there any reports of Frankish landlords being murdered or held for ransom. This was not due to ‘passivity’ on the part of an oppressed population, which had risen twice in the short period between the departure of Richard I and the arrival of the Lusignans. Crete provides an illuminating comparison. Here, there were seven major rebellions against Latin (Venetian) rule in the thirteenth century and another three in the fourteenth century. In contrast to the Venetians, however, Lusignan rule was not designed to exploit a colony for the benefit of a distant power. The Lusignans lived in Cyprus among their people and identified with them.
The bulk of this entry is an excerpt from Dr. Schrader's comprehensive study of the crusader states.