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Monday, April 3, 2023

The Economy of the Crusader State: Introduction and Overview

The establishment of the crusader kingdoms along the coast of the Levant resulted in an economic revival of the region. What had been an unimportant backwater to the Ayyubid and Fatimid caliphates, whose religious, administrative and economic centres lay in Damascus and Cairo, respectively, suddenly become the spiritual heart of the entire Latin-Christian world. 


The crusaders resettled the Christian Holy Land after its depopulation through conquest and the resulting enslavement and deportation of the native population. Investment into infrastructure revitalised the rural economy and enabled the expansion of trading networks. Existing cities grew, and ancient cities such as Caesarea and Ramla, which had gone to ruin, were revived. Indeed, entire new settlements and villages were built. The larger cities, such as Acre, Tyre, Beirut, Tripoli and Antioch, became booming urban centres with larger populations than the capitals of the West. Not until the mid-thirteenth century did Western European cities start to compete in size with the cities of the Latin East.

Key to this economic boom were strategic investments. Some aided an expansion of arable land and an increase in agricultural productivity. Others entailed the introduction of entirely new agricultural products and enabled industrialization of the production of select commodities resulting in surpluses for export. As a result, the First Kingdom of Jerusalem was a net exporter of agricultural produce. While the Second Kingdom of Jerusalem was not, it retained the fertile coastal plain, critical for producing fruits, vegetables and chief export crops. Collectively, however, the crusader states increased agricultural output and self-sufficiency in foodstuffs in the thirteenth century due to the acquisition of Cyprus.

Yet, the famed wealth of Outremer did not derive from agriculture. The services sector was sizeable, and industry was significant, while trade became the great engine generating economic prosperity. The expansion of trade was made possible by the development and maintenance of infrastructure networks connecting the coastal urban centres with each other and other cities in the region, such as Aleppo, Damascus, Baghdad and Egypt. The roads, of course, had existed under the Romans and Byzantines long before the arrival of the crusaders, but had mostly fallen to ruin. The Franks undertook their reconstruction and built new roads to enable inland cities such as Nazareth, Nablus, Bethlehem and Jerusalem to be readily accessed by pilgrims and supplied with necessities. 

Most importantly, the Franks connected the traditional oriental trade routes with the growing, increasingly prosperous and luxury-hungry markets of Western Europe. Trading privileges had been the lure that harnessed Italian maritime power to the crusaders’ cause. As soon as the Italians established a foothold on the coast of the Levant, they transformed the coastal cities into major trading hubs. The value of this trade can be illustrated by Acre, which in the latter half of the thirteenth century alone annually  generated crown revenues significantly greater than that of all England.[i] These urban centers not only generated tax revenue, they also created enormous employment opportunities for both skilled and unskilled labour.

Only in the twilight years of the second half of the thirteenth century did geopolitical changes begin to threaten the foundations of the Frankish economy. The Mongols had devastated first Baghdad and then Antioch, leaving the traditional trade routes in shambles. Meanwhile, Mongol domination of the entire Asian continent from China to Constantinople opened a land route for the riches of the Far East. The Black Sea and Constantinople gained in importance at the expense of the Eastern Mediterranean. What might have been a slow decline, however, was turned into a catastrophic implosion by the Mamluk conquest of the mainland crusader states. The Mamluk policy of obliteration and depopulation brought an abrupt end to the age of prosperity.

In contrast, the economy of Cyprus was predominantly agricultural. In the 400 years of Muslim domination of the Levant, it did not suffer in equal measure from the damage of conquest, occupation and depopulation as the mainland.  Nor did Frankish conquest cause any meaningful disruption in the island’s agricultural productivity. Cyprus’ population was not decimated, and the system of land tenure was not altered; Frankish landlords simply replaced the absentee Byzantine aristocrats. Imperial lands became royal lands. Feudal obligations were introduced for the large landowners at the pinnacle of the pyramid, but the impact of such customs on the serfs at the bottom was negligible.

Yet, whereas the Byzantine authorities looked to Constantinople as ‘the City’ and showed no interest in developing Cypriot industry and trade, the Lusignans consciously promoted both. Furthermore, because the Lusignans were not beholden to the Italian maritime states for their conquests, they had no need to grant them exclusive concessions. Instead, the Lusignans fostered competition between the various Italian merchant states while keeping markets open to Armenians, Greeks, French, Syrians and other merchants. Furthermore, the Cypriot crown retained for itself the lion’s share of the economic assets: an estimated one-third of rural villages and monopolies on key products such as salt while keeping firm control over tariffs, duties and infrastructure. The quality and purity of commodities such as gold and silver and products such as silk, sugar, wax and honey were carefully supervised. Price controls were introduced as necessary to prevent price-gouging in periods of scarcity. Perhaps most significant, unlike the mainland crusader states in which Byzantine, Syrian, Egyptian and multiple domestic currencies circulated, the Lusignans maintained a monopoly on the minting of coins in Cyprus; foreign coins were melted down and reminted.

In short, without impeding agricultural activities, the Lusignans diversified the Cypriot economy. Besides giving the kingdom a stronger economic base, it increased rural prosperity as the rural population profited from supplying the growing urban centres on the island with food. 

Cyprus also avoided the Mamluk juggernaut. Instead, it was flooded with Christian refugees in the last decades of the thirteenth century. These caused short-term economic disruptions such as skyrocketing food prices (until the royal price controls kicked in) and inflation of urban property prices and rents alongside a devaluation of portable valuables such as gold, silver and gemstones. However, the situation soon stabilised, and for nearly 100 years, Famagusta, Limassol and Kyrenia replaced Acre, Tyre and Beirut as the most important trade hubs for the exchange of goods between the Near East and Europe alongside Alexandria and Constantinople. In consequence, the fourteenth century was one of the most prosperous in the history of Cyprus.

In the next week, Dr Schrader will provide a closer look at the various factors that contributed to this economic prosperity on the mainland and in Cyprus.

[i] Christopher Tyreman, The World of the Crusades (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019), 260.

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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