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Monday, February 6, 2023

Sources of Revenue in the Crusader States

 One consistent characteristic of the Frankish kingdoms was their affluence compared to kingdoms in the West. Contemporary accounts from pilgrims often express amazement bordering on envy at the luxurious, even decadent, lifestyle of the residents of Outremer. This was partially an illusion. Items considered outrageously expensive luxuries in the West, such as silk, spices, opium and sugar, were readily available and comparatively cheap in the East. At the state level, however, there is little doubt that the Kingdoms of Jerusalem and Cyprus enjoyed exceptionally diverse and lucrative sources of revenue. This made them remarkably wealthy for their size, despite being periodically bankrupt due to the disruptions caused by warfare. 


Raids and invasions were hugely destructive of economic resources, often leaving entire swaths of countryside depopulated and in smoking ruins. Offensive campaigns were an equally exhaustive drain on the royal treasury since the crown was required to pay mercenary salaries, ‘restor’ (replacement of horses) and cover the cost of supplies and provisions. Thus, while trade and tourism enriched the Italian mercantile communities and the urban middle class, the crown and the feudal nobility collected enormous revenue, yet at the same time needed to expend a substantial portion of it on the collective defence of the realm.

In 1183, the rising threat of Saladin led to the imposition of a comprehensive wealth tax on all subjects: the Church and the feudal lords, the non-feudal Franks, native Christians, Muslims, Jews and (exceptionally) the Italians. It may qualify as the first such national tax recorded in Western history and was viewed as unique at the time because taxpayers assessed and declared their own property value. The proceeds of this tax could be spent on defense only.

In periods of peace, the taxes assessed across the crusader states were based on taxes predating the First Crusade, which appear to have been comparatively reasonable by contemporary standards. Richard the Lionheart won support during his conquest of Cyprus by promising to restore the tax regime operative in the reign of Manuel I Comnenus, something evidently seen as an improvement over the gouging taxes of the renegade Isaac Comnenus. On the mainland, we know that peasants were free of feudal services, and the rural rents were set intentionally low to attract settlers. Christian peasants paid no more than one-quarter to one-third of their harvest to their lords. In Cyprus, the rents for free peasants could be as low as one-fifth and did not exceed one-quarter. Even serfs in Cyprus paid only one-third of their crop but were also liable for other feudal fees and services, increasing the overall burden. Notably, the Muslim rural population was not heavily taxed if we are to believe the account of the Muslim pilgrim Ibn Jubayr. The latter remarked that Muslim peasants had been ‘seduced’ by the comparative ‘ease and comfort’ of their lives when compared to the burdens placed on Muslim peasants in Muslim territory.

Ultimately, the moderate rates of rural taxation were financed through tax revenue generated from commercial and maritime rather than agricultural activities. The Franks, like their predecessors, enriched their treasury by taxing:

·                Mills for grinding grain into flour

·                Olive and wine presses

·                Sugar factories

·                Ovens (which were usually communal as it took a great deal of scarce wood to heat one and it was more efficient to do this for large quantities of bread)

·                Garden produce and orchards

·                Bathhouses

·                Traffic passing through city gates

·                Sales taxes at markets

·                Head taxes on the passengers and crew of arriving ships

·                Exit taxes for foreigners departing by ship

In addition to these taxes, state revenue was derived from:

·                Rights of salvage

·                Anchorage and harbor fees

·                Import and export duties

·                Rents for store-frontage

·                Fees assessed by the courts on people found guilty of crimes and misdemeanors.

In Cyprus, the crown also maintained a monopoly on salt, highway tolls and minting coins.

Overall, in the Kingdom of Jerusalem, revenue derived from trade and commerce outweighed income from agriculture — at least in the thirteenth century, after the Kingdom of Jerusalem had become more urban. In Cyprus, the situation was reversed, and taxes on agriculture — including many high-value products such as sugar, honey and wine — outstripped revenue obtained from commercial activities. Over time, however, the taxes on trade and finance undoubtedly increased as a proportion of the total.

The structures for collecting revenue were largely inherited from the Byzantines, namely the previously mentioned ‘secrète’ and ‘commercium’. Here, an army of clerks and scribes employed sophisticated accounting methods not only to collect and record taxes, duties and customs but to pay revenue to the holders of money-fiefs and their rear-vassals if they had any. They also paid alms and covered debts incurred by recipients, rather like a payroll tax deducted at the source nowadays. Pilgrims noted with surprise that the customs clerks were multilingual and able to converse in French, Latin and Arabic fluently. Most of these employees in Cyprus, and probably in Jerusalem, were native Christians rather than Latin immigrants, although in later years they may have increasingly been ‘poulains’. 


The bulk of this entry is an excerpt from Dr. Schrader's comprehensive study of the crusader states.

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is also the author of six books set in the Holy Land in the Era of the Crusades.


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