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Monday, March 13, 2023

Diplomatic Ties with the West: A Special not a Colonial Relationship

Warfare has always attracted more attention than diplomacy, yet no power on earth would not prefer to obtain its foreign policy objectives without resort to war. Only when diplomatic efforts fail must the weapons speak. For this reason, diplomacy is one of the most critical weapons in any political — or military — leader’s arsenal. The traditional focus of historians on the crusades — by definition, a series of military campaigns — has obscured the fact that the crusader states were masters of diplomacy, effectively pursuing their goals vis-a-vis the West, the Byzantine Empire and the Muslim states around them. Today I look at their diplomatic ties with the Latin West.

Efforts to equate the status of the crusader states to that of colonies — as was done (positively) in the heyday of nineteenth-century colonialism and (negatively) in the anti-colonial late-twentieth century — are more misleading than enlightening.  Colonies are established by powerful entities (kingdoms, states, cities) in foreign environments to enrich the home country. The colonial power sends governors and administrators to the colony, who identify with the ‘mother country’ and enforce policies that benefit not the local region/community/population but the distant metropolis.

The crusader states, in contrast, had no single ‘metropolis’ and were independent political entities represented by independent rulers for most of their existence. Not until the mid-thirteenth century did absentee Western rulers attempt to impose their will on the Kingdoms of Jerusalem and Cyprus. They failed in the case of Cyprus, and in Jerusalem met with local opposition that prevented their effectiveness.

Furthermore, 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, and all the various forms of taxation by which governments finance their activities accrued not to a distant European ‘colonial power’ — but to the 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.

Finally, the Europeans never viewed the crusader states as ‘underdeveloped’ or ‘backward’, as the colonial powers of the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries did their colonies. On the contrary, for nearly 200 years, crusaders and pilgrims from the West were impressed by the superior standards of living enjoyed by the residents of the crusader states. For all these reasons, the ‘colonial model’ has been discredited over the last twenty years.

Far from occupying an inferior and subordinate position as do colonies, the crusader states sat at the symbolic centre of Christianity and thus held a place of privilege in the intellectual and spiritual geography of medieval Europe. The crusader states might have been politically and militarily weak, but they were never considered peripheral.

The residents of the Holy Land were recognised as the ‘first line of defence’ protecting the Christian heartland from Muslim threats. Yet, at the same time, the pope, monarchs and peoples of Europe acknowledged that the defence of the most important shrines of Christendom was the joint responsibility of all Christians. Consequently, the religious and secular leaders of the crusader states felt entitled to demand the support of the entire (Latin) Christian world to defend their territory. Nor were they hesitant to do so. On the contrary, the Frankish leadership engaged in nearly continuous nagging at the courts of Europe for money, men and ships to assist them in their mission of retaining control of the Holy Land. 

Appeals to the West for aid have been documented in 1120, 1127, 1145, 1150, 1163, 1164, 1165, 1166, 1167, 1168, 1171, 1173, 1174, 1181 and 1184. Several of these led to papal calls for new crusades, although only that of 1145 resulted in a major expedition to the East, the Second Crusade led by Conrad III and Louis VII of France. Notably, many of these appeals went out when the Kingdom of Jerusalem was expanding. Some appeals explicitly requested aid for planned offensive campaigns; e.g., the request for the Venetian fleet to attack the coast of Antioch in 1120, the request for men to assist in an attack on Damascus in 1127 and all the appeals from 1163 to 1171 when King Amalric was engaged in Egypt.

Nevertheless, most of these appeals took on a formulaic quality in which the ‘dire condition’ of the crusader states was described, threats to the holy places were conjured, and the dangers to pilgrims depicted. These embassies have deceived contemporaries and historians alike. All too often, Western noblemen mortgaged their lands or otherwise incurred debt to rush to the defence of the ‘endangered’ Holy Land only to discover there was no catastrophic threat to the shrines of Christendom — or worse, there was a truce with the Muslims in effect and no fighting was allowed at all. But many historians continue to impute near collapse and acute danger based on the language of these pleas, creating a picture of near-permanent catastrophe and weakness that is not consistent with evidence from other sources showing comparative strength and security. Amalric did not invade Egypt five times because his kingdom was on the brink of collapse or at risk of being overrun any moment. Indeed, the Franks did not even recognise the need to build major castles until the 1170s, during the reign of Baldwin IV. Yet, as the threat to the crusader states waxed under the Sultan Saladin, the Kingdom of Jerusalem had already cried ‘wolf’ too often. Indeed, from the Second Crusade onwards, the repeated calls for aid yielded meager responses — until it was too late, and the kingdom had been lost at Hattin.

Yet, while Western responses to calls for support might have been lukewarm, there was no fundamental conflict of interest between the crusader states and the powers of Western Europe. Western powers might prioritise other issues, as King Henry II of England repeatedly did when he promised to crusade to the East only to remain in his kingdom to defend it against his rebellious sons and the King of France. Yet, no Latin ruler questioned the fundamental principle of Frankish rule over the Holy Land or their obligation as a Christian monarch to bolster such rule. Nor did any Western power pursue foreign policy objectives that undermined the foreign policy or security goals of the Franks. Differences of opinion were tactical rather than strategic in nature.

For example, when resources intended to reinforce the crusader states of the Levant were diverted to the conquest of Constantinople, many in the Kingdom of Jerusalem lamented the misdirection of aid, but the Fourth Crusade did not fundamentally undermine the viability of the crusader states. Likewise, the decades-long conflict between the Holy Roman Emperor and the local barons of Outremer had the long-term effect of weakening central power and making the crusader states more vulnerable. Yet the issue was the rule of law and feudal rights of vassals, not foreign policy such as the expediency of truces with the Ayyubids.

A degree of tension between the Franks and their Western allies was also created by the fact that the Franks as a rule had a better understanding of divisions within the Saracen camp and a more nuanced approach to dealing with their Muslim neighbours than their contemporaries in the West. The latter were far more likely to fall victim to their own hyperbolic propaganda against the demonic enemy, employed to whip up crusading fever and bolster recruitment. The Franks, on the other hand, used ‘fewer polemics than one would find in … almost any petty ecclesiastical dispute in Europe’.[i] Yet these were differences of tone, not substance. This meant that, at times, the Franks’ practical approach to dealing with the Islamic enemy met with astonishment and even suspicion on the part of Western leaders, yet there was no fundamental conflict of aims.


[i] Jonathan Riley-Smith, The Crusades: A History (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), 255.

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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