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Monday, April 10, 2023

The Economy of the Crusader States: Agriculture

The Holy Land is the proverbial land of ‘milk and honey’, a fertile region with a moderate climate and sufficient rainfall to support ancient and medieval population levels in abundance.  When the crusaders first arrived, however, they did not find a garden of Eden but rather an underpopulated region with encroaching deserts. In less than a hundred years the Franks had transformed the landscape to be net-exporters of agricultural produce.


The decline of the region started with the Arab conquests which were characterized by the wholesale slaughter and enslavement of large portions of the rural population. Those natives who could, fled to the walled cities, abandoning their farms and fields, but tens of thousands were not so lucky and were killed or carried off. In the wake of the Muslim armies came Muslim immigrants who expropriated land, dwellings and entire villages from the remaining native inhabitants. The bulk of these new residents from the Arabian Peninsula, however, were herders, not farmers. They did not plant the fields they confiscated. Instead, they let their herds graze on them until they were largely worthless.

While the triumphant Muslim conquerors enjoyed a lavish and luxurious lifestyle in flourishing urban centres, the native rural population was subject to extra taxes and the payment of annual “tribute.” The chronicles of Muslims, Christians and Jews document the disparity between the lifestyle of the urban elites — including ‘dhimmis,’ i.e. Christians and Jews — and that of the rural poor. The result was a further decline in the rural population and an increased loss of agricultural productivity. And then the Seljuks came.

The Seljuks repeated the age-old pattern of conquest, accompanied by wide-scale destruction, slaughter and the enslavement of captives. On the eve of the crusades in the late twelfth century, the Byzantine historian Anna Comnena described the Near East’s once prosperous and fertile regions as a desert inhabited by Turkish nomads. While this was clearly an exaggeration, Arab, Syriac and Armenian sources corroborate the fact that, across the Holy Land, not only churches and synagogues but entire villages and towns had been abandoned. Agricultural productivity had fallen to a minimum, and desertification was on the rise.

The Frankish feudal lords, in contrast to the Arabs and Seljuks elites, had always derived their wealth from agriculture. They were quick to recognize the agricultural potential of the Holy Land. They set about improving the yield of the land by making strategic investments. The large number of ecclesiastical landlords in the crusader states was beneficial because they could draw on substantial capital reserves from their mother institutions. Furthermore, monastic institutions in Western Europe had long been at the cutting edge of agricultural technology and innovation. Yet, it was not church lands alone that benefitted from investment. Crown and baronial lands also enjoyed investment in such features as terracing, aqueducts, the clearing and opening of springs and wells, the filling of water reservoirs and the construction of wind and water-powered mills to pump water into newly laid irrigation canals and ditches. In addition, the Franks built roads for transporting products to market.

Such investment benefited the native rural population, who could increase productivity on the land they held. Furthermore, the Franks increased the amount of land under cultivation by actively recruiting agricultural labor from the West. Roughly 140,000 Latin Christians immigrated to the Holy Land in the first 80 years of the twelfth century; a sizeable portion of those appear to have moved to rural communities. The immigrants were attracted by free status, low rents, an almost complete absence of feudal labor services, modern infrastructure and proximity to the holiest sites in Christendom.

Archaeological surveys conducted at the end of the last century demonstrate that the Franks settled predominantly near existing Christian settlements. Notably, unlike the Arab settlers of the previous four centuries, ‘the Franks did not evict the local villagers from their homes. Most of the Frankish villages were established in places which had been abandoned before the arrival of the Franks or in places which were outside the boundaries of the previous villages.’[i] In other words, the Franks took over land that had been abandoned, allowed to lie fallow or had become semi-desert due to overgrazing and neglect.

Once in the Holy Land, the rural immigrants integrated with the local Christian population, using the same markets, baths, shops, tradesmen and even churches. Intermarriage with native Christians was common. The typical rural village of this period had between 500 and 600 inhabitants, composed of farmers and skilled craftsmen such as carpenters, metal workers, butchers, bakers and the like.

In some regions, however, the depopulation of previous centuries had been so significant that the land could support the creation of new villages inhabited exclusively by immigrants. These purely Frankish villages demonstrated some unique features such as collective ovens, collective oil and wine presses, large granaries and sometimes sugar factories. Communal ovens and mills were often co-located since the lord of the manor generally held both; instances of baths built to exploit the heat of the ovens also have been found. Exclusively Frankish settlements also differed from older native communities by being planned rather than growing haphazardly. Some villages spread out along a road; others were built in concentric circles around a new manor house, church or other central focal point such as a mill, granary or oil and wine press. The focal point of the latter type of village often served several satellite villages as well. The remains of manor houses, both fortified and unfortified, testify to the presence of the feudal elite in these villages.  

Initially, the new settlers must have been highly dependent on the native rural population to adjust to a new environment. They would have had to learn about the Near East’s weather patterns, which differed from the soggy, cool climate of France, England and the Holy Roman Empire, whence they had come. They would have been required to adjust their patterns of sowing and harvesting to different growing seasons. They would have needed to become familiar with different breeds of livestock, including goats and camels. They would also have been confronted with unfamiliar crops such as dates, sugar cane, figs, bananas and citrus fruits. Lastly, they would have had to learn to work with old-fashioned, oxen-drawn ploughs rather than the more effective horse-drawn ones long used in Europe. This was because the soil of the Near East was too shallow; a European-type plough would have dried out and killed the crops.

Soon, however, rural Franks were doing more than adapting; they were expanding and diversifying agricultural production. Wine and pork production, both of which had been neglected under Muslim rule, were ramped up, while sugar and olive oil production were industrialized to produce surpluses for export. Other cash crops were rice, cotton, indigo and balsam.

Orchards were another ubiquitous feature of the Frankish countryside, surrounding many of the urban centres. In addition to olive orchards and vineyards, the Franks cultivated almonds, pistachios, dates, figs, bananas, lemons, oranges, apples, pears, cherries, peaches, pomegranates, plums and carob. Vegetables represented another important agricultural product of the region, although these were grown primarily for domestic or household consumption. These included beans, lentils, cabbages, onions, garlic, artichokes, cucumbers, melons and mustard.

A wide variety of livestock thrived in the Near East and was cultivated by the Franks. Most essential for food were sheep, goats, pigs and fowl, while horses, mules, camels and donkeys were raised as beasts of burden. Oxen held an ambidextrous position, used for milk, meat and leather, but also for ploughing. Finally, fish formed an vital part of the medieval diet due to fasting rules that limited meat consumption in certain periods. The demand for fresh fish in the booming coastal cities exceeded local capacity to deliver. In addition to Pisan and Genoese fisherman, Jewish fisherman from as far away as Alexandria fished in the waters of the Levant and offloaded cargoes at the Frankish ports.

One form of livestock was particularly valuable: war horses. Despite the development of specialised horse transports, many crusaders and armed pilgrims arrived in the Holy Land without adequate mounts because many horses died of illness or were killed or permanently injured in accidents during the long journey. Even those horses that survived the trip could not always adapt to the Near East’s climate and diet. Last but not least, combat took a heavy toll on horses. The demand for replacement mounts was therefore enormous and could only be met by the local market. The horses bred in the surrounding Muslim states could be of exceptional quality for what they were bred for: speed and agility. As a rule, however, they lacked the stamina and strength required of a knight’s palfrey or destrier, both of which were expected to carry a man in full armor either for extended periods (the palfrey) or in intensive and rapid charges (the destrier). The Franks of Outremer cultivated the breeding of horses to Western standards in numbers exceeding their needs. It was undoubtedly a lucrative business. Knights arriving in the Holy Land without mounts were prepared to pay exorbitant prices to regain their military capabilities and status, both of which were lost without horses.

Despite the retention of the fertile coastal plain with its orchards, gardens and sugar factories, the thirteenth century saw a shift in agricultural production away from the Kingdom of Jerusalem to the Kingdom of Cyprus. Under the Lusignans, Cyprus’ export of surplus production of staples such as wheat, wine, oil, pulses, carob and salt were diverted from Constantinople to the Frankish states on the mainland. The Cypriot agricultural economy was significantly more diverse than that of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. In addition to the familiar products of wheat, barley, rye, wine, olive oil and sugar, Cyprus exported salted fish, salt, onions, honey, wax and candlesticks, soap, cotton and silk textiles, pine resin and indigo. It produced cheese, timber, flax, cotton and rice for domestic consumption. The primary agricultural exports were wheat, barley, wine, olive oil, salt, fish, sugar and carob, while the other export products were less substantial in quantity, although not necessarily less in value.

A noteworthy feature of agricultural development in Cyprus under the Lusignans was the employment of highly sophisticated and efficient techniques at the cutting edge of medieval technology. Archaeological excavations show that waterpower was used extensively, including horizontal wheels with vertical millstones (a recent innovation) and water recycling from mills for use in irrigation and fishponds.

[i] Ronnie Ellenblum, Frankish Rural Settlement in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 96.

The bulk of this entry is derived 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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