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Wednesday, September 20, 2023

The House of Ibelin: Obscure Origins

 In the fourteenth century, the Ibelins claimed to be descendants of the Counts of Chartres, but the claim is patently concocted, and modern historians have been puzzling over the roots of the family ever since.


Sir Steven Runciman believed the house of Ibelin ‘was founded by the younger brother of a certain Guelin, who was deputy viscount of Chartres, that is to say, the Count of Blois’ representative in Chartres’. He noted that ‘such officers in those days did not enjoy hereditary rank but were often drawn from lawyers’ families’.[i] Peter Edbury, argued that onomastic evidence points to Tuscan or Ligurian (i.e. Italian) origins instead.

Recent genealogical research and DNA samples reinforce Edbury’s thesis, while suggesting further that the Ibelins descended from Italian merchants who immigrated to the Holy Land prior to the First Crusade. There are indications that, although Latin Christians, they had already established themselves in positions of economic and social power under the Abbasids and possibly played a role in aiding the first crusaders take Jaffa and Jerusalem. Such a thesis is hugely exciting and would explain a number of mysteries and anomalies. However, until the results of preliminary research have been published this thesis remains speculative.

Whatever his place of origin, and whatever he called himself before coming to the Holy Land, the first man to identify himself as an ‘Ibelin’ was a certain Barisan. His date of birth is unknown, as is the date he arrived in the Holy Land. The fact that he does not appear to have taken part in the First Crusade, gives credence to thesis noted above that he one of the small minority of Latin Christians already resident in the Levant prior to the First Crusade.  What is certain is that by 1115 he was ‘Constable of Jaffa’, a significant position, suggesting he had made a name for himself and earned the trust of the king. Since such positions did not go to youths unless they were of high birth, we can assume that Barisan was a mature man by that time.

In 1134, he prominently refused to side with his rebellious lord, Hugh of Puiset, Count of Jaffa, siding with the crown, and it may have been for this loyalty that Barisan was rewarded by the king with a fief almost a decade later. In about 1142, the new castle and lordship of Ibelin south of Jaffa was bestowed on Barisan. Notably, he became a vassal of the new Count of Jaffa rather than a tenant-in-chief. Through hard work and loyal service, Barisan had reached the lowest rung of the feudal elite, but he was not yet a baron.

Meanwhile, in 1138, he had married a certain Helvis (or Heloise), daughter of Baldwin of Ramla, one of the barons of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. At the time of this marriage, Helvis was not the heiress; she had a younger brother, Renier. So, this marriage was between a man not yet raised to the nobility and the daughter of a nobleman. It was a good marriage but not a spectacular one. The situation changed, however, when Renier of Ramla died childless in 1148. Suddenly, Helvis was the heiress of the prestigious and prosperous barony of Ramla and Mirabel. (Despite the two names, this was a single barony.) Through sheer luck, a good marriage had turned into a spectacular one.

Barisan had little time to enjoy his increased status. He died in 1150, probably peacefully in his bed of old age; he was most likely more than 60 years old and could easily have been 70 or older at the time of his death.

[i] Sir Steven Runciman, ‘The Families of Outremer: The Feudal Nobility of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, 1099-1291’, The Creighton Lecture in History 1959 (London: University of London Press, 1960), 7.

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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Wednesday, September 13, 2023

The Ibelins: An Archetypical Frankish Family

 Today I start a series on the history of the Ibelin Family -- arguably the most powerful and most charismatic of all the "Frankish" families. Certainly their influence pre-dated and out-lasted that of the Lusignans.

The Ibelin family was one of the most powerful noble families in the crusader states. Sons of the House of Ibelin were at various times Lords of Ibelin, Ramla and Mirabel, Nablus, Caymont, Beirut, Arsur, and Counts of Jaffa and Ascalon, the last, a traditionally royal domain and title of the heirs to the throne. Ibelins married into the royal families of Constantinople, Jerusalem, Antioch, Cyprus and Armenia. An Ibelin daughter founded the Cypriot royal family, and three other Ibelin women were queens of Cyprus. Ibelins were repeatedly regents, constables, marshals and seneschals of both Jerusalem and Cyprus. The Ibelins also led a successful revolt against the Holy Roman Emperor Friedrich II. 

Yet the Ibelins were not mere politicians. They were respected scholars. One translated Arab poetry into French; another wrote a legal treatise that is not only a goldmine of information about the laws of the crusader kingdoms but admired for its elegance of style and the sophistication of its analysis. The Ibelins built at least one magnificent palace, whose mosaics, fountains, gardens and polychrome marble inspired the admiration of contemporaries. Their display of wealth and panache during the Seventh Crusade awed the nobility of France. 

Yet while the Ibelins were undoubtedly exceptionally successful, they were also in many ways typical. They embodied the overall experience, characteristics and ethos of the Franks in the Holy Land. They came from obscure, probably non-noble origins, and the dynasty’s founder can be classed as an ‘adventurer’ and ‘crusader’. They rapidly put down roots in the Near East, intermarrying with native Christian and Byzantine elites. They were hardened and cunning fighting men able to deploy arms and tactics unknown to the West and intellectuals who could win wars with words in the courts. They were multilingual, cosmopolitan and luxury-loving, as comfortable in baths as in battles. Perhaps most importantly, they worked closely with turcopoles and sergeants and forged alliances with the merchant communities, reflecting the Latin East’s tolerant and fluid social structures. Finally, like the crusader states themselves, they disappeared from history when the last crusader kingdom fell to the greed of the Italian commercial city-states. In short, the story of the Ibelins is a microcosm of the crusader states, and I will be telling their story over the next weeks.

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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Wednesday, September 6, 2023

Life in the Crusader States: Frankish Cuisine

 Straddling the trade routes from several cultures, residents of crusader states were exposed to and cultivated a range of culinary traditions. The crusader kingdoms inherited the cuisine of earlier Mediterranean civilizations, including invaders from the Arabian Peninsula and the Near Eastern steppes, but they also enjoyed the cooking traditions brought to Outremer by Latin settlers of Northern and Western Europe. These traditions coexisted and probably influenced one another, yet we can no longer recreate the cuisine itself. Nevertheless, much can be surmised based on the ingredients available to the cooks of Outremer.


Before looking more closely at the content of crusader cooking, however, it is worth noting that the crusader states were arguably the inventors of fast food. The large number of pilgrims flooding the Holy City produced a plethora of cheap inns and hostels, places where pilgrims could bed down for the night. But affordable places to sleep, then as now, did not offer meals, so pilgrims had to eat elsewhere. A general shortage of firewood meant that not only was bread baked centrally in large ovens, usually co-located with flour mills, but that ‘cook shops’ producing large quantities of food over a single large oven were more practical than everyone cooking for themselves. The result was the medieval equivalent of modern ‘food courts’ ― streets or markets where various shops offered pre-prepared food. The results were probably not all that different from today; the area in Jerusalem where cook shops were concentrated was known as the ’Market of Bad Cooking’ ― the ‘Malquisinat’.


Turning to the ingredients available, the medieval diet’s staple was bread derived from grain, and this was true in the Holy Land no less than in England. Milling was a prerogative of the feudal elite, and bakeries were generally co-located with mills in rural areas near the manor and in urban areas well-distributed around the city for convenience. The primary grains popular in the Holy Land were wheat and barley, but millet and rice were also known. Rice would have been consumed directly rather than converted into bread by the native population that retained Arab and Turkish eating habits. 


Animal products were the second pillar of the medieval diet, highly valued, and fully exploited from the meat to the innards. Of the large, domesticated animals, sheep and goats were the most common type of livestock in the region, and the Hospitallers recommended lamb and kid for patients in their hospitals. Jerusalem, however, also had cattle and pig markets. While camel meat is considered a delicacy in much of the Middle East, the camels of Outremer were used primarily as beasts of burden.

Of the smaller animals, poultry and fish belonged to the Frankish diet, the latter being particularly important during ‘fasting days’, when meat was prohibited, e.g., throughout Advent and Lent and on certain days of the week. In the Second Kingdom, when the population of Outremer was clustered along the coastline, fish from the Mediterranean represented an important component of the diet. This enriched Frankish cuisine with elements virtually unknown in most of continental Europe, such as squid and octopus.


Game was available in the First Kingdom and Cyprus, including gazelles, boars, roe deer, hares, partridge and quail. However, in the Second Kingdom, territorial losses resulted in much greater population density, which restricted habitat for game, and it all but disappeared from the tables of the elite in the mainland states. Cyprus, on the other hand, was still home to much wildlife (including lions), and the Cypriot feudal aristocracy was (in)famous for its large kennels and addiction to the hunt. 


Animal products, such as milk, butter, yogurt, and cheese, were consumed in large quantities in the Holy Land in the era of the crusades. Cheese was particularly important because of its comparatively long shelf life and was produced from cattle, sheep, goat and camel milk. Yogurt, a product used heavily in the Middle Eastern diet, would have been known to the Franks, but we cannot measure how readily it was embraced in Frankish cuisine.


Vegetable varieties were limited by modern standards. Legumes were the primary vegetables of the Middle Ages. In the crusader states, the most important vegetables were beans, including broad beans, lentils, peas and chickpeas, as well as cabbage and onions. Fresh cucumbers and melons were native to the Levant and also formed part of the Frankish diet.


Fruits were a key component of Frankish cuisine, and here again, the residents of Outremer had ready access to fruits, such as oranges and lemons, that were considered luxuries in the West. Along with typical and familiar fruits from the West such as apples, pears, plums and cherries, the residents of the crusader states cultivated pomegranates (particularly around Ibelin and Jaffa), figs, dates, carobs and bananas. Arguably the most indispensable of all fruits were grapes, which were eaten fresh and dried (raisins and currants) and (of course, were) fermented as wine. 


Other trees that yielded significant dietary supplements were almonds, pistachios, hazelnuts and, the most essential of all, olives. Olive oil was and is fundamental to Middle Eastern cuisine. It is the primary source of cooking oil, used both as a means of cooking and a supplement for consistency and taste.


Finally, some of the most valuable dietary ‘additives’ that make such a difference to the taste of food — honey, sugar, herbs and spices ― were readily available at affordable prices in the crusader states. A variety of herbs such as rosemary, thyme and oregano grew in abundance. Likewise, many spices only available at exorbinantly high prices in Europe passed through the ports of Outremer. The coastal cities and Jerusalem had spice markets in which these exotic, high-value products were available in quantities and at prices unimaginable in the West. Frankish cuisine was likely greatly enriched by the widespread use of cinnamon, cumin, nutmeg, cloves, saffron and black pepper, among others.

Given the ingredients the cooks of Outremer had to work with and the inspiration they could draw from their Greek, Arab and Turkish neighbours, Frankish cuisine as a whole ― despite the presence of some mediocre fast-food joints on the Street of Bad Cooking ― was most likely unique and delectable.

This description and other aspects of life in the Crusader states can be found in:

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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