All content on this blog is protected by copyright.
Content used elsewhere without attribution constitutes theft of intellectual property and will be prosecuted.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Crusader Craft and Industry

The establishment of the crusader kingdoms along the coast of the Levant resulted in an economic revival of the region as pilgrims, merchants and settlers flooded into the territories re-captured for Christianity.  What had been an unimportant backwater to the Ayyubid and Fatamid caliphates, whose religious, administrative and economic centers lay in Damascus and Cairo respectively, had suddenly become the spiritual heart of the Latin-Christian world.  In consequence, not only did existing cities undergo an economic boom, but ancient cities gone to ruin, such as Caesarea and Ramla were revived, and entire new towns and villages were built.

An estimated 140,000 settlers from Western Europe immigrated to the Holy Land in the first century after the First Crusade, eventually accounting for between twenty and twenty-five percent of the population of the crusader states. These numbers were swelled annually during the “sailing season,” roughly from April to October, with tens of thousands of pilgrims who came to see the holy sites as “tourists.” 

To serve the pilgrims, the mercantile city-states of Venice, Genoa and Pisa built fleets and established communities in the ports of the crusader states to cater to residents, pilgrims and home markets. In addition to passengers, the Italian merchant fleets transported a variety of goods: timber, horses, arms and armor from the West; sugar, olive oil, silk, and spices from the east.

But not everything used in the crusader states were imports and not all exports were commodities. The crusader states also developed indigenous crafts both for every day and ceremonial use. These included, of course, metal-working and wood-working, leather goods, ceramics, textiles, and glass. Most of these products were produced by native craftsmen, who continued to use the same techniques as before the Latin conquest, but the motifs shifted to include crosses, fishes and other Christian symbols. The styles were also influenced by the taste of customers and exposure to products imported from the West. The native craftsmen, however, had developed their crafts over the centuries, heavily influenced by earlier waves of invaders from the Romans and Byzantines to the Saracens. Thus their work inevitably reflected these layers of past influence now combined with Western European influences to form distinctly crusader crafts.

Because of its durability, we know that crusader metal-working was of a very high standards as surviving objects of the period from several of the key churches attest. Objects included metal screens or grilles, candle sticks and candelabra, brass bowls and bells, as well as magnificent silver and gold work in reliquaries and jewelry. Jerusalem had an entire street known as the Street of the Goldsmiths, attesting to the quantity and popularity of gold work produced in the Holy City. Many (if not most) of the products from these workshops probably ended up in the West, as pilgrims took them home as keep-sakes and gifts. Many may not yet have been identified as originating in the crusader states. At the lower end of the scale, there were many blacksmiths in the Holy Land, both native and settlers, and most earned their living producing articles needed for daily life from horseshoes, plowshares, hammers and shovels, to maces and battle axes, although it appears that most swords were imported either from Damascus (famous for its steel) or the important weapons centers in Italy and Germany.

Wood, leather and textile goods have largely been lost, but some cloth fragments are witness to the use of wool, cotton, linen and silk in cloth manufacture in the crusader states. Interestingly, evidence of mixed fabrics — silk warp with wool, linen or cotton weft — have been found.  Fragments of both dyed and undyed fabrics have been found, as well as patterned fabrics created by woodblock printing.  In addition, there is evidence that cloth, particularly silk, was decorated with silk or gold embroidery and brocading. The colors that have survived in the few finds of textiles from the crusader period ranged from ivory, yellow and gold to red and various shades of blue. However, purple was the imperial color of Byzantium and would have been available at least as in import for the upper classes, and it is reasonable to assume that green tones could also be produced and would have been available.

Pottery from the crusader period has survived in much larger quantities and demonstrates that while some pottery was imported from Egypt and Syria, the vast majority of pottery objects in use in the crusader states was produced locally and was often of very high quality. Pottery was used for the production of cooking pots and pans, storage jars and jugs, basins, bowls, plates and cups. It was often decorated with incisions in the unfired clay, and designs were painted either beneath a transparent glaze or with colored glazes. The most common color scheme was red or brown painting on a white backdrop, although blue and black designs on white were also known. Cream and pale green glazes were also popular. Popular motifs included ancient geometric designs, foliage, birds and animals, but human figures, crosses and fishes — i.e. Christian symbols — were also used. One distinctive feature of much local pottery that made it popular with pilgrims was the use of transparent glaze on the inside of pots and pans to create an early kind of “Teflon” — stick-free cooking.

Perhaps the more sophisticated and beautiful craft of the Holy Land was glass-making. Glass was used in windows in the crusader period, both stained and painted glass for churches, and round and plate panes for windows in secular buildings. Green plate glass from the crusader period, for example, was found at a farmhouse less than five miles from Jerusalem; it would probably have graced the manor of a local lord.  Glass was also used for the drinking vessels, both beakers and goblets, and for bowls and bottles.  Bottles with long necks for perfumes and the scented oils produced in the Holy Land were probably popular among pilgrims as gifts for those left behind. Glass was also used for storage jars and for oil lamps, a continuation of Byzantine and Arab traditions. Glass of the crusader period was often dyed and/or decorated. The colors of crusader glass found to date include yellow, red and light brown, emerald and light greens, turquoise, shades of blue as well as light and dark purple. Decorations included geometric designs and heraldry, foliage, birds, animals as well as saints and religious motifs. Some glass objects also have inscriptions. Tyre was particularly known for its glass-making industry and the glass produced was reputedly particularly transparent. But glass-making was also carried out in other crusader cities, including Acre and Beirut; the latter was famous of its red glass.

In short, the crusader kingdoms had a lively, diverse and comparatively sophisticated craft industry capable of producing not only articles for everyday use, but beautiful and valuable objects. This reflects a high level of civilization typical of a society with extensive trading ties and elites with sufficient income to support quality craftsmanship. Particularly interesting in crusader crafts is the synthesis of Arab/Egyptian, Byzantine and Western influences to produce a unique and distinctive “crusader style” in a variety of objects.

Note: I could find no pictures in the public domain of objects made in the crusader states. The photos are simply examples of objects from the 12th and 13th century, although the pottery is similar to pottery I saw on Cyprus from the crusader period.

Recommended further reading:

Boas, Adrian J., Crusader Archaeology: The Material Culture of the Latin East, Routledge, London & New York, 1999.

My novel set in crusader Jerusalem depicts the high level of civilization reflected above.

 Buy now!                                       Buy now!                                   Buy now (paperback)
                                                                                                                or Kindle!

Read more about Crusader Art, Architecture and Economy at Balian d'Ibelin and the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

See the world through the eyes of a crusader's horse! Follow "The Destrier's Tale" on:

Friday, May 15, 2015

Crusader Horses: Destriers, Palfreys and Pack-Horse

Horses were an absolutely essential — indeed defining — component of a knight’s equipment. The German word for knight (ritter) derives directly from the word for rider (reiter), while the French and Spanish terms, chevalier and caballero, derive from the word for horse (cheval and caballo respectively). While a knight might temporarily be without a mount, without a horse a knight could not fulfill his fundamental function as a cavalryman. Indeed, the symbol of knighthood was not the sword (infantrymen had those as well) or even the lance (they were throw away pieces of equipment), but the (golden) spurs tied to his heels during the dubbing ceremony. Richard Barber notes in his seminal work The Knight and Chivalry that being financially in a position to outfit oneself with arms and horses was crucial to knightly status. David Edge and John Miles Paddock argue in their comprehensive work Arms and Armour of the Medieval Knight that “[a knight’s horse] was the most effective and significant weapon the knight had; the basis of his pre-eminent position in society and on the battlefield.” 

In short, knights needed horses — significantly not just one horse but several.  This short post provides a overview of a knight's equine needs.

The warhorse or destrier, is the most obvious of a knight’s horses. This was the horse a knight rode into battle, joust or tournament. This horse was his fighting platform. It was trained to endure the shock and noise of combat. In later years, destriers were sometimes also trained to lash out at enemies with teeth and hooves thereby becoming, as Edge and Paddock note, a weapon as well as a fighting platform. Knights rode stallions, not mares or geldings. This was in part because stallions were considered more aggressive, but also because riding a mare or a gelding detracted from a knight’s image as a virile warrior.

Destriers had to be strong because they needed to support a fully armored knight and because they had to withstand the press of horseflesh in a charge and endure uninjured the impact of charges by other horses. They particularly had to have powerful haunches to absorb the shock of frontal collisions with enemy cavalry or in a joust. This does not mean, however, that destriers were massive, heavy horses similar to modern draught horses.  Archeological and artistic evidence suggests that the warhorses of crusader knights were no more than 14-15 hands high (a hand is four inches and horses are measured at the withers, the bone over the shoulders at the base of the neck).  Furthermore, they had to be very responsive to their riders, and that means sensitive and agile. They can best be compared to modern quarter horses.

Destriers were not a specific breed of horse, so arguably the defining characteristic of a destrier was simply its function — and price. If a knight thought a horse had what it took to be a fine destrier, he was willing to pay a large premium for that — and anyone in possession of a horse with the necessary qualities was going to ask a commensurate price for it as well.  In short, destriers were outrageously expensive. They cost 4 to 8 times the price of lesser or ordinary horses. They cost as much as the armor a knight wore. They could cost as much as the annual knight’s fee — in short roughly the annual income of the gentry.  The equivalent is the price of a top-line BMW or Mercedes today.

Like any horse, destriers were vulnerable to colic and injury, however, which meant a knight was well advised to have more than one destrier — if he could afford it.  Even if he could and did, however, he was likely to have a favorite. The destriers of knights in contemporary romance and legend all have names: Baucent, Folatise, Babieca etc., but perhaps no description is more famous that the Dauphin’s praise for his horse before Agincourt in Shakespeare’s Henry V. “When I bestride him, I soar, I am a hawk: he trots on air; the earth sings when he touches it…. It is a beast for Perseus: he is pure air and fire….”

For all their value and importance, however, a knight spent far less time mounted on his prized destrier than on his palfrey(s). Palfreys were riding horses, transportation not weapons, the means of getting from point A to point B. Since medieval knights rode everywhere -- to oversea their estates, to visit neighbors, when hunting or hawking, to attend court or to go courting. In short, a knight spent literally countless hours with his palfrey(s). Palfreys were bred not for strength and fierceness but for smooth gates, endurance and common sense. They were probably much the same size as destriers, but lighter — marathon runners rather than sprinters, wrestlers more than boxers. 

Since these horses were just as likely to get colic or injured, the need for more than one palfrey was just as compelling as with destriers, but given the substantially lower price of palfreys the possession of more than one was considerably more common. Knights would normally have possessed at least two and wealthy nobles likely had stables of horses at their disposal for transport purposes.

The last and lowliest of a knight’s horses was his sumpter or packhorse. These were essential for transporting equipment, notably armor when it wasn't being worn.  A knight did not travel light. He needed a tent for camping out, a bedroll for sleeping on, basic utensils for cleaning, grooming and cooking, a change or two of clothes, supplies of food and — in more arid climates — water as well. Depending on the purpose and duration of travel, a knight might even take with him simple furnishings to ensure comfort while on campaign or travelling long distances. All that was carried on pack animals, either sumpter horses, mules or donkeys. We know little about these poor beasts of burden beyond that they were common and cheap. They were “hacks” largely interchangeable, nameless, and unloved. 

See the medieval world through the eyes of a horse! Follow “A Destrier’s Tale” on:

 Buy now!                                       Buy now!                                   Buy now (paperback)
                                                                                                                or Kindle!

Friday, May 1, 2015

Crusaders and Chivalry

The crusaders have often been accused of barbarism — starting with the Byzantine princess Anna Comnena and more recently by 19th and 20th century historians, not to mention President Obama. Yet the crusaders viewed themselves as both civilized and virtuous. They, like the crusades themselves, were a product of one of the great civilizing movements of the medieval period: chivalry. To understand the crusaders, it is essential to understand that their religious faith was Roman Catholicism, but their secular faith was chivalry.  So just what was “chivalry”?

The biographer of William Marshal, one of the most famous knights of the late 12th and early 13th century — often held up as the personification of chivalry — answered the question as follows:
So strong a thing,
and of such hardihood,
and so costly in learning,
that a wicked man or low
dare not undertake it.

That certainly conjures up images of the knights in search of the Holy Grail 

 but does little to explain the crusades or the crusaders. Based on the historical sources, including medieval handbooks on chivalry, literature and biographies, what follows is a more prosaic explanation:

Chivalry evolved out of the military and literary traditions of antiquity, and emerged at the beginning of the High Middle Ages as a concept that rapidly came to dominate the ethos and identity of the nobility. Chivalry is inextricably tied to knighthood, a phenomenon distinct to Europe in the Middle Ages. There have been cavalrymen in many different ages and societies, both before and after the High Middle Ages, but the cult of knighthood, including a special dubbing ceremony and a code of ethics, exists only in the Age of Chivalry.

Chivalry was always an ideal. It defined the way a knight was supposed to behave. No one in the Middle Ages seriously expected every knight to live up that ideal all of the time. Even the heroes of chivalric romances usually fell short of the ideal at least some of the time – and many only achieved their goal and glory when they overcame the baser instincts or their natural shortcomings to live, however briefly, like “perfect, gentle knights.”

Chivalry was a code of behavior that young men were supposed to aspire to – not already have. The code was articulated and passed on to youths in the form of romances and poems lionizing the chivalrous deeds of fictional heroes. It was also recorded in the biographies of historical personages viewed as examples of chivalry, from William Marshal to Geoffrey de Charney and Edward, the Black Prince. Finally, there were a number of textbooks or handbooks that attempted to codify the essence of chivalry.

So what defined chivalry?

First and foremost, a knight was supposed to uphold justice by protecting the weak, particularly widows, orphans, and the Church. This is why it was so intimately intertwined with the Crusades. No knight could show his devotion to the Church more completely than by abandoning his secular interests to fight for the Holy Land. This is why protection of pilgrims was the primary mission of the Knights Templar, when they were founded. It is why protecting and providing care for the sick and infirm was the core function of the Knights Hospitaller. Chivalry gave knights — noble fighting men — a role that was profoundly Christian in nature and it was this Christian element that made chivalry utterly different from earlier warrior cults that stressed courage, strength and prowess at arms for their own sake. Achilles, remember, didn’t fight for any cause but his own fame, and the same was true of Norse and Germanic heroes before the advent of chivalry.

Second, while the monk-knights of the militant orders devoted their entire lives to the defense of the Church and others in a spirit of humility, secular knights were supposed to pursue a permanent quest for honor and glory, sometimes translated as “nobility.” 

It was in this secular context that the troubadours introduced for the first time the notion that “a man could become more noble through love.” Thus love for a lady became a central – if not the central – concept of chivalry, particularly in literature.

Notably, the chivalric notion of love was that it must be mutual, voluntary, and exclusive – on both sides. It could occur between husband and wife – and many of the romances such as Erec et Enide by Chr├ętien de Troyes or Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival revolve in part or in whole around the love of a married couple. But the tradition of the troubadours put love for another man’s wife on an equal footing with love for one’s own – provided the lady returned the sentiment. The most famous of all adulterous lovers in the age of chivalry were, of course, Lancelot and Guinevere, closely followed by Tristan and Iseult.

Likewise noteworthy in a feudal world was the fact that the lover and the beloved were supposed to be valued not for their social status or their wealth, but for their personal virtues, albeit only within the band of society that was “noble.” By definition, the heroes of chivalry are knights, and their ladies are just that: ladies. Stories about peasants, priests, and merchants are simply not part of the genre, any more than lusting after a serving “wench” qualifies as “love” in the chivalric tradition. But within the chivalric class, a lady was to be loved and respected for her beauty, her graces, and her wisdom regardless of her status, and a knight was to be loved for his chivalric virtues, not his lands or titles.

So just what were those “chivalric virtues”? One of the handbooks on chivalry written by the Spanish nobleman Ramon Lull lists the virtues of a knight as: nobility, loyalty, honor, righteousness, prowess (courage), love, courtesy, diligence, cleanliness, generosity, sobriety, and perseverance. Wolfram von Eschenbach in Parzifal, on the other hand, stresses a strong sense of right and wrong, compassion for the unfortunate, generosity, kindness, humility, mercy, courtesy (particularly to ladies), and cleanliness.

I hope readers will agree these are the (ambitious!) virtues of civilized men, not barbarians.

Readers interested in learning more about this fascinating concept can turn to:

 Buy now!                                       Buy now!                                   Buy now (paperback)
                                                                                                                or Kindle!

Learn more about crusader society at: Balian d'Ibelin and the Kingdom of Jerusalem.