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Sunday, May 7, 2023

The Economy of the Crusader States: Technological and Intellectual Exchange

  It was not only commodities and manufactured goods that moved between East and West in the era of the crusades; ideas and technology were also exchanged. Contrary to common belief, this exchange was two-way and it benefited both sides, particularly in the field of medicine.

While Islamic culture undoubtedly experienced a significant flourishing in the centuries immediately preceding the crusades, Western Europe was not trapped in some ‘dark age’. On the contrary, Europe enjoyed noteworthy technological and intellectual advancement in the centuries preceding the First Crusade. Professor Rodney Stark claims: ‘The so-called Dark Ages were a period of profound enlightenment in both the material and intellectual spheres, which when combined with Christian doctrines of moral equality, created a whole new world based on political, economic, and personal freedom’.[i]

While Stark may be overstating the case, there is no doubt that the learning of the Greeks and Romans was not lost to Western Europe in the years after the fall of Rome but was preserved and translated in centres of learning across Europe. Furthermore, before the First Crusade, the first Western university had been founded; several others followed it in the next century. These were not schools of theology comparable to Islam’s madrassas, but institutions dedicated to scientific inquiry. These Western institutions practised critical peer review and were protected by the concept of academic freedom. Other advances of the pre-crusades era were polyphonic music and the invention of the organ and the violin. Clocks, compasses and eyeglasses were other innovations that made their appearance in the West during the crusading era — without input from the Muslim world.

Yet the most profound Western developments in the centuries before the First Crusade were those practical innovations that enabled agricultural productivity to expand to the point where generations of peasants no longer lived on the brink of starvation. The development of a horse-collar for ploughs enabled the introduction of horsepower in agriculture. Horses could plow at twice the speed of oxen, doubling production. Indeed, they made it possible to cultivate more land. Combined with new ploughs that turned the earth — rather than merely scratching the surface of it —the productivity of the land increased dramatically. Peasants were able to move beyond subsistence agriculture to cash crops. Except in periods of exceptional natural or political disruption, they had enough nutritious food to reach their full genetic potential.

Other practical Western inventions in the centuries before the First Crusade were brakes on wagons and swivel axles, both radical innovations at the time. When combined with the development of the horse-collar and the breeding of larger, stronger horses, these enabled the transport of heavy cargoes over land. This was a boon to trade and helped develop the interior, however, heavy transport vehicles also made a significant contribution to warfare by enabling the transportation of siege engines, for example. Indeed, heavy transportation wagons with teams of four or more horses and large siege engines were just two of the technological innovations brought from the West to the Near East rapidly adopted by the crusaders’ Muslim opponents.

Throughout the ages, military technology and tactics have been characterised by rapid innovation, imitation and adaptation. In the context of the crusades, the Franks adopted the surcoat and mounted archers (turcopoles), while the Saracens adopted heavy siege equipment and heavy (lance-bearing) cavalry. In military architecture, useful features in castle construction introduced by either party were almost immediately copied by the other. In his outstanding examination of crusader castles, however, Ellenblum demonstrates that it was the crusaders who first made significant advances in military architecture with the introduction of key features such as thicker, higher and concentric walls, posterns, vaulted chambers in the ‘safe-zones’, and massive storage to withstand lengthy sieges.[ii] However, the Mamluks learned fast, and later Muslim castles were equal to those of the crusaders.

Nevertheless, the West benefitted enormously, both technologically and intellectually, from exposure to the Muslim East via the crusader states. The most modern means for making paper, for example, was taken back to Europe by clerics who learned about the process in the Latin East. Likewise, the means for making high-quality glass, which the glassmakers of the Levant had already mastered before the arrival of the crusaders, was introduced in Venice in 1277, giving Venice a competitive edge in that sector that lasted to the eighteenth century.

Overall, when assessing which party benefitted most from contact with the other, we should not automatically assume that the culture more open to adaptation was the weaker or more backward. For example, despite the superiority of European naval architecture, the Arabs could not imitate it because they lacked high-quality shipwrights. The chimneys built in the Holy Land by the Franks fell into disrepair and subsequently disappeared from local architecture after the departure of the Franks, not because chimneys were useless or old-fashioned, but due to the inertia of ‘tradition’.

An important factor impacting the direction of technology transfer was the environment. The Franks, not their Arab and Turkish opponents, were living in a new environment, which meant they needed to adapt, not the other way around. Significantly, that new environment was one with extremes of heat unknown in their homelands, an environment that was more arid, less forested and more densely populated. It would have been absurd — and stupid — to cling to traditions and technologies unsuited to the Mediterranean, no matter how well-suited those technologies were for, say, agriculture in Scotland or fighting in Prussia. 

The adoption of surcoats is an excellent example of this. In the intense heat of the Syrian summer, wearing a loose cloth garment over one's armour made sense. That the Franks rapidly did so, and – even more surprising – that it became fashionable across Western Europe is not evidence of the inferiority of previous forms of dress. The surcoat had a function that was related directly to the physical environment in the Near East. Its later evolution into a means of showing off one's arms and affinity had nothing to do with Arab/Turkish superiority but rather with Western customs of chivalry.

Similarly, the prevalence of stone structures across the Middle East in an era when most construction in Western Europe was still wooden was not the result of a higher level of civilization in the Arab world. Instead, it was a function of the scarcity of wood in the Near East. To this day, archaeologists can date crusades-era buildings based on the exceptionally high standards of Frankish masonry and the chimneys. 

On the other hand, although Western European ploughs were undoubtedly more sophisticated than the ploughs in use in the Holy Land and had contributed considerably to rising standards of living and higher levels of nutrition among the poor in Europe, they were unsuitable for use in the Middle East. Consequently, Frankish settlers abandoned a higher level of technology unsuited to the environment in favour of an ‘old-fashioned’ technology that did less environmental damage to a fragile ecosystem. 

Adaptation from West to East, on the other hand, was inhibited not only by the fact that the environment remained the same for Muslims but also by Muslim presumptions of superiority. The Muslims viewed Franks as fundamentally backwards because they were ‘blasphemers worshipping God incorrectly … or as idolaters worshipping cross-shaped idols’.[iii] In the extreme, they shared the attitude expressed by Bahr al-Fava’id, who wrote: ‘Anyone who believes that his God came out of a woman’s privates is quite mad; he should not be spoken to, and he has neither intelligence nor faith’.[iv]

It is to the Franks’ credit that regardless of what they thought of Islam as a religion, they did not dismiss its adherents as madmen or idiots. Because of this willingness to separate religion from science and art, the Franks proved remarkably adept at adapting to their new environment and developing a unique hybrid culture.

There is no better example of this than the impact of Arab medicine on the West. Recent scholarship demonstrates that ‘medical practice in the armies of the First Crusade was comparable with Byzantine and Islamic practice, both in terms of practical treatment and also the theory behind the origins of disease’.[v] In short, before the establishment of the crusader states, ‘Saracens and Christians shared the same conceptual framework for medical science, which they [both] inherited from the classical world’.[vi]

However, in the subsequent 200 years, during which the Franks lived amidst Eastern cultures, medicine evolved rapidly. In this period, after the establishment of the crusader states, scholars can trace new influences on Western medicine from the Latin East. The most significant medical innovation to travel from the crusader states to Europe was undoubtedly the concept of an institution staffed by medical professionals (not monks or nuns) and dedicated to curing — not just caring for — the sick and injured, i.e., a hospital. Yet, while the Franks may have learned about hospitals from Muslims, the latter had learned about hospitals from the Byzantines, making this an example of a ‘melting pot’ innovation.

Likewise, while the regulation of medical practice and practitioners appears to be one aspect of medicine in which Franks learned from the natives of Outremer, the natives in question were not necessarily Muslims.[vii] Scholars believe that as many as two-thirds of the medical practitioners in Egypt, for example, were Christians or Jews. In Syria, Christians, Jews, Samaritans and Zoroastrians all practised medicine. Many of the most famous crusader-era physicians, such as Abu Sulayman Dawud, who treated Baldwin IV for his leprosy, and Ibn Butlan, a leading medical theoretician and author of medical texts, were Orthodox Christians. When contemporary accounts refer to ‘Saracen’ or ‘Eastern’ doctors, they did not necessarily mean Muslim doctors. The bulk of the medical personnel employed by the Franks were Jews, Jacobites or other Orthodox Christians. In short, the apparent preference for ‘Muslim medicine’ attributed to the Franks by many modern writers is based on a misunderstanding of the primary sources.

Scholars have identified several specific examples demonstrating that the ‘exchange of medical knowledge was a two-way phenomenon’.[viii] Based on extensive research of both texts and archaeological finds, Osteoarchaeologist Piers D. Mitchell concludes that: ‘The evidence … does not support the widely held view that Frankish practitioners from Europe were ignorant and technically inferior to those who learnt their medicine in the East’.[ix]

What was happening in Outremer was that highly trained and dedicated medical practitioners of different religions — Orthodox and Latin Christians, Jews, Shia and Sunni Muslims — lived and worked closely with one another. Those without bigotry were willing and anxious to learn from their colleagues, regardless of religious background. They exchanged experiences, techniques, theory and practice. Under Frankish rule, Antioch blossomed into a major centre for the translation and writing of medical texts as well as the study and development of medical theory. Medicine in Outremer is a textbook example of intellectual exchange between different cultures and traditions, stimulating an advancement in knowledge for all.

[i] Rodney Stark, The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success (New York: Random House, 2005), 68.

[ii] Ronnie Ellenblum, Crusader Castles and Modern Histories (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 231-257, 299-301. 

[iii] Niall Christie, Muslims and Crusaders: Christianity’s Wars in the Middle East, 1095-1382, from the Islamic Sources (London: Routledge, 2014), 78.

[iv] See note 11, Christie, Muslims and Crusaders, 77-78.

[v] Piers D. Mitchell, Medicine in the Crusades: Warfare, Wounds and the Medieval Surgeon (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 216.

[vi] Susan B. Edington, ‘Oriental and Occidental Medicine in the Crusader States’, in The Crusades and the Near East: Cultural Histories, ed. Conor Kostick (London: Routledge, 2011), 189.

[vii] See note 14, Edington, ‘Oriental and Occidental Medicine in the Crusader States’, 205.

[viii] See note 13, Mitchell, Medicine in the Crusades, 217.

[ix] See note 13, Mitchell, Medicine in the Crusades, 239.

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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