The Kingdom of Jerusalem has been called by leading historians the "ideal" feudal state. This came about because the leaders of the First Crusade, confronted by the need to institutionalize control over the conquered territories in the Near East, naturally recreated structures familiar to those of their homelands in Western Europe. The crusader states thus embody the state of European feudalism as it existed at the start of the twelfth century.
Simplified, this was a hierarchical pyramid based on mutually beneficial agreements between the king and his barons, the barons and their knights and the knights and their peasants. Feudal oaths bound both parties and established duties on the two sides. At this time, the duties of both kings and vassals had become complex, yet kings had not yet started to amass the kind of power that enabled them to become absolute monarchs. While kings in Western Europe centralised and consolidated power in the succeeding two centuries, feudalism in the crusader states remained comparatively stable, more corporate and more diffused. In other words, the feudal law applied in the Kingdom of Jerusalem represented a developed but not yet decadent form of feudalism.
More astonishing, the feudal laws of Jerusalem were codified. After the near loss of the kingdom in the aftermath of Hattin, the political-legal leadership of the early thirteenth century sought to reconstruct institutions by capturing and recording the collective memory of a generation. To that end, scores of educated noblemen undertook to write down and comment on the laws and the customs which had formed the legal basis for governing the pre-Hattin Kingdom of Jerusalem. While not the same thing as a formal collection of laws, these works combined provide a remarkably detailed description of feudal law and practice in the twelfth- and thirteenth-century crusader states. Based on these documents, historians have described the Kingdom of Jerusalem as an ‘ideal’ feudal state. Yet, while the state was a feudal state ‘par excellence’, it was also unique with many unique features unknown to feudal kingdoms of Western Europe.
This entry is an excerpt from Dr. Schrader's comprehensive study of the crusader states.