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Wednesday, August 2, 2023

Life in the Crusader States: Education, Scholarship and Intellectual Life

 A literate population presupposes education in some form. While many noblemen and women would have received education at home from tutors, public schools were necessary to foster a literate clergy. By 1120, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre had established a cathedral school alongside the more famous scriptorium. Other cathedral schools presumably existed, at least in Antioch, Acre, Nazareth and Tyre. None of these schools evolved into a university, and the Latin East did not contribute to the great contemporary debates on theology and philosophy. Nevertheless, as preparatory schools for European universities and as schools preparing secular elites for service in the bureaucracy and courts, the quality of education appears to have been adequate to above average.


Notably, it was not the Franks alone who had access to higher education. By the thirteenth century, the crusader states had become a centre for both Samaritan and Talmudic studies, while a Jacobite school was founded in Tripoli. Nablus was the heart of Samaritan worship and scholarship, and a large number of Torah scrolls from the crusader era testify to the vitality of the Samaritan intellectual community. Meanwhile, Jewish immigration to the Holy Land, particularly from Catalonia and France, enabled Acre to become a vibrant Jewish intellectual hub with multiple competing schools of Talmudic study. Indeed, prominent Egyptian Jew David ben Joshua Maimonides fled to Acre to avoid persecution from his enemies in Egypt. In roughly the same period, 1246-1259, the Syrian Jacobite Gregory bar Hebraeus established a multidisciplinary school in Tripoli. Hebraeus was the author of numerous works, including books on philosophy, rhetoric, cosmology, natural history, psychology and metaphysics.

In Cyprus, village schools continued to provide rudimentary instruction in Greek, but Greeks seeking higher education had to go to Constantinople. For the much smaller Latin population, each of the four bishops established and maintained grammar schools, while the Archbishop established a grammar school and a secondary school focused on theology. Again, while unremarkable as an intellectual centre, the grammar schools of Frankish Cyprus enabled ‘a broad diffusion of functional literacy’.[i]


Scholarship and Intellectual Life

Despite the absence of a local academic centre, Cyprus’ geopolitical and economic position as an interface between the Arab Middle East, Byzantium and Western Europe ensured that intellectual trends reached Cyprus rapidly from these places. Because Cyprus was secure and wealthy, the Lusignan court was free to focus on topics other than survival. Henry IV was famous for inviting leading intellectuals to his court from the West, Constantinople and Egypt, and the quality of intellectual discourse at the Lusignan court was elevated enough to receive positive notice in Constantinople. Indeed, it has been said that ‘the literature produced on Cyprus … up to the reign of Peter I constitutes a flowering that is without parallel before the Renaissance’.[ii]

The Frankish residents of the crusader states on the mainland were likewise more than mere ‘consumers’ of books and literature; they produced them as well. As mentioned in the previous chapter on economics, the production of manuscripts was an economic activity of note, which ensured they were readily available for purchase.

More important than the physical production of books was the amount of content that originated in the Kingdom of Jerusalem. To be sure, the Latin East failed to attract the great abstract thinkers of the age, yet it was far from devoid of intellectual activity and scholarly work. Unsurprisingly, a great number of works were written in the Holy Land concerning the history of the crusades and the Latin East. The most important of these included: Fulcher of Chartres’ history, the ‘Gesta Tancredi’ by Raoul of Caen, the ‘Bella Antiochena’ by Walter of Antioch, the ‘Hierosolymita’ by Ekkehard of Aura, the anonymous ‘Gesta Francorum’, and, of course, the aforementioned Chansons of Antioch, Jerusalem and the Chetifs, the latter being a romance about crusaders captured by Zengi, the Atabeg of Mosul, which was commissioned by Prince Raymond of Antioch.

In a class by itself is William of Tyre’s ‘History of Deeds Done Beyond the Sea’, which has been called ‘one of the greatest historical works of the Middle Ages’.[iii] Even more extraordinary was Tyre’s ‘History of Islam’, a work commissioned by King Amalric. This work is noteworthy on two counts: (1) that a scholar in the Latin East was sufficiently conversant with Arabic and Arab sources to venture such a task, and (2) that a Christian monarch was sufficiently interested in his opponents to want to understand Islam and its roots.

Philip de Novare  was another outstanding intellectual and scribe from the Latin East. Like a medieval Leonardo da Vinci, Novare was a man of many talents. As a knight, he actively participated in most military campaigns and battles of his age, yet he was also a poet, troubadour, philosopher, historian and lawyer. Among his contemporaries, he was most famous for his legal handbook on the laws of the Kingdoms of Jerusalem and Cyprus, a book full of practical tips for how to ‘plea’ or argue a case. Today, he is remembered as the author of the only comprehensive narrative describing the baronial resistance to Emperor Frederick II’s rule in Outremer. Strikingly, Novare was a man of obscure and probable bourgeois origins and limited financial resources, yet he rose to a position of influence and enjoyed widespread respect due to his intellectual — rather than his military — capabilities. That says a great deal about the society in which he lived, particularly since he was not alone in following this career path. On the contrary, other men of more obscure origins, such as William de la Tor, Rostain Aimer, Reynald Forson, Paul of Nablus, Philip Lebel, William Raymond, Philip of Baisdoin, Raymond of Conches, Raymond and Nicholas of Antiaumes and James Vidal gained prominence through their skill with the pen rather than the sword.

Collectively, these men and their aristocratic colleagues, such as Ralph of Tiberias, Balian de Sidon, Arneis of Gibelet, John d’Ibelin of Beirut and his nephew John of Jaffa, produced a diverse body of works from legal treatises and histories to romances. Their influence at home was such that by the mid-thirteenth century, interest and understanding of the law had become ‘the chief characteristic of a literate and cosmopolitan baronage in Jerusalem and Cyprus’.[iv] Nor was their influence confined to Outremer. On the contrary, their theories on constitutional government profoundly influenced baronial movements across Europe.

To this day, these works are admired. It has been suggested, for example, that ‘the greatest monument to the western settlers in Palestine, finer even than the cathedrals and castles still dominating the landscape, is the law book of John of Jaffa, which … is one of the great works of thirteenth-century thought’.[v]

[i] See note 18, Grivaud, ‘Literature’ in Cyprus: Society and Culture 1191-1374, 226.

[ii] See note 18, Grivaud, ‘Literature’ in Cyprus: Society and Culture 1191-1374, 237.

[iii] Christopher Tyreman, The World of the Crusades (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019), 110.

[iv] Andrew Jotischky, Crusading and the Crusader States (London: Pearson Longman, 2004), 227.

[v]  Jonathan Riley-Smith, The Feudal Nobility and the Kingdom of Jerusalem 1174 – 1277 (London: Macmillan Press, 1973), 230.

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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1 comment:

  1. You've heard of "for want of a nail?"

    How about: If not for Balian . . .


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