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Friday, June 24, 2016

The Duties of Kings to their Subjects and Vassals

When we think of feudalism, we tend to think of a hierarchical state with a king at the top enjoying all the benefits. In my entry on The Ideal Feudal State, I pointed out that feudalism was in fact more decentralized and consensual than is commonly thought. Today I want to draw attention to some of the duties of kings.

At the most elementary level, of course, kings owed their subjects what all governments owe their citizens: security and justice.  The security component consisted (then as now) of protection against foreign enemies (invasions, Viking raids or terrorism etc.) and protection against lawlessness and crime. Then as now that first duty bled into the second as fighting crime entails administering justice, but justice is and was not confined to fighting crime alone. Justice also includes a just administration of property, labor, scarce resources such as water, and more. 

The parallel to modern society is imperfect, however, because feudal society was both more personal (men took oaths to individuals not to abstract ideas) and more stratified. Feudal society was not based on the principle that “all men are equal before the law” but rather on the notion that rights and duties depended on one’s social position or class.

Fundamentally, society was divided into three classes or estates: 1) those who worked, 2) those who prayed, and 3) those who ruled/administered (not those who fought, as I’ll explain below). While this stratification oversimplifies both the society itself and attitudes of the time, it is nevertheless a useful structure for understanding feudal society and with it the duties of kings.  

The workers were responsible for the production of (first and foremost) food, other necessities and luxuries. The more sophisticated the society, the more complex this class was, so that it came to include everything from serfs working the land to great merchants and craftsmen commanding fortunes and ruling over armies of tradesmen, apprentices, servants and laborers. Being a member of the “Third Estate” was not the same thing as being poor! But the Third Estate was viewed as subordinate to the other two: in spiritual matters to the Second Estate and in secular matters to the First Estate.

The men who prayed (the Second Estate) were the clergy, and again this segment of society included poor (e.g. parish priests who lived little better than the peasants they served) and “princes of the church” with vast estates and fortunes. Unlike the Third Estate, which was fragmented into different professions with their own hierarchical structures, before the Reformation all members of the Second Estate belonged to one, universal (“Catholic”) church. All members of the Second Estate thus operated in a single, well-defined hierarchy headed by the pope. Since the Catholic Church required celibacy of its members, churchmen could not bequeath their lands, fortunes or offices to their offspring (even if, as we know, they often had them!) On the other hand, because members of the Second Estate were drawn from the other two, and the Church as an institution often provided a means for the children of poor parents to rise to positions of power, wealth and influence.  

The First Estate is often described confusingly as a class of warriors or “those who fight.” While even contemporary sources refer to the First Estate in this way, the description is misleading. On the one hand, 50% of this class, the women, did not fight — but they were still members of the First Estate and often wielded great power, including power over men and fighting forces.  On the other hand, the bulk of fighting men in any host were not drawn from the First Estate, but rather from the Third; they were men engaged in the profession of arms as mercenaries or feudal levies called up for a set period of time. 

It is more useful to look at the First Estate as the secular ruling class, the people who exercised for and in the name of the king his fundamental duties of providing protection and administering justice. Because one man (or woman) could not alone perform either function, the king depended upon the First Estate to provide military capability, enforce the law of the land, and administer local justice. The First Estate was effectively the executive branch, and as such it had a special relationship with the king. Members of the First Estate were not mere subjects of the king, they were also his deputies. Understanding this helps explain why the king and his nobles had a special relationship, a relationship founded on an exchange of oaths. 

To be precise, the exchange of oaths was only with the upper strata of the First Estate, with the barons or tenants-in-chief. They were called tenants-in-chiefs because in feudal theory all land belonged to the king and he merely loaned it to his designated deputies, albeit on a hereditary basis. This meant the land passed from the original recipient to his heirs in perpetuity — until the line of the original recipient died out or he or his descendants failed to fulfill the feudal duties associated with the loan of land (the enfeoffment). In either case the land was forfeit to the crown.

The tenants-in-chief generally controlled far more land than they could possibly manage and owed many more fighting men to the crown than they could personally equip and provide (often in the hundreds), so they in turn lent out their lands (again on a hereditary basis) to other men, who owed them — the barons, not the king — fealty. The lowest tier in the First Estate were simple “knights” holding a “simple” knight’s fief, meaning a fief whose annual income was sufficient to support only a single knight (which was not one individual but a fighting unit, as I explained in an earlier post.) If a fief became too small or poor to support the expenses of a knight, the owner slipped out of the First Estate and down into the Third, becoming nothing but a tenant farmer. (This was to become a problem in the latter Middle Ages.) The landowners holding land from a baron or bishop were called “rear tenants” and belonged to the First Estate, but not to the baronage. 

However, often lost beneath the customs, ceremony, romance and idealism of chivalry is the fact that the relationship between a king and his barons (and between lords and their rear-tenants) was fundamentally one of fee (fief) for service. The Kingdom of Jerusalem shines light on this relationship because many of the fiefs in the Kingdom of Jerusalem were “money fiefs,” highlighting the monetary component of feudal service.  Whereas elsewhere it was more common for a king (or lord) to bestow land that was expected to produce enough income to support a set number of knights, in Jerusalem the king frequently paid a set amount of money outright in exchange for the service of a set number of fighting men. Significantly, La Monte points out in Feudal Monarchy in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem 1100 to 1291, many money fiefs were granted with the provision that “if the revenues specifically granted [were] not forthcoming, the amount promised [would] be made up from...the general revenues of the kingdom.” The distinction between a fief and wages in these circumstances is approaching minimal, albeit a fief could be bequeathed, while wages could not. The more common practice of granting land deemed to be worth a certain income, of course, obscured and weakened this monetary component of the king’s duties to his vassals because the value of land could vary over time based on many factors from acts of God (draught, flood, fire etc.) and through good or poor management.

Regardless of the nature of the fief, the relationship between the king and his barons/tenants-in-chief was a direct and personal one. It requiring the renewal of the oath each time a monarch died and was succeeded. The oath of a vassal was furthermore, neither unconditional nor unlimited. For example, in Jerusalem the king could not command feudal service outside the borders of the kingdom, either for offensive operations (e.g. against Cairo or Damascus) or even in the defense of the neighboring states of Tripoli, Antioch and Edessa. Another important limit on service was that no man was required to personally render knight's service after he reached the age of 60. Critically — and often overlooked nowadays — is that the oath of fealty was a two-way bond. Not only did the vassal swear loyalty to the king, but vice versa. Thus, Richard I of England, as the liege lord of the Lords of Lusignan, was obligated by feudal custom to support Guy de Lusignan’s claims to the throne of Jerusalem.

While the case of a vassal being anointed king elsewhere and then needing support is a rare one, a far more frequent occurrence were attacks on a vassal's lands — by brigands, raiders, enemy troops.  Attacks might come from a common enemy like the Saracens or Vikings, or simply from a neighbor, who owed allegiance to a different king (think of the situation in France during the long wars between the Plantagenets and Capets, or the Hundred Years War).  Simply put, if a vassal did not have the military strength to defend his own territory, he could call upon the king to come to his aid. In the Kingdom of Jerusalem, where the threat of Saracen invasion was ever-present, the constitution explicitly stated that failure on the part of the king to protect the lands of a vassal automatically absolved the vassal of his oath. 

In general terms, then, the duties of a king to his barons was payment and protection, but in the Kingdom of Jerusalem there was (at least) one more duty — one that particularly appeals to me, that of “restor.”  Restor was the duty of the king to replace or reimburse any knight or noble whose horse was mutilated or killed in battle while serving the king. Indeed, it was one of the most important duties of the Marshal of Jerusalem to assess the value of all knights’ and noble’s horses before any campaign/engagement, to assess the value of horses captured during an engagement, then then either replace horses injured or killed with captured horses of equivalent value or reimburse the knight/noble the monetary value of the lost stallion.  This custom highlights the importance horses had to the military establishment and social status in the feudal age; see my entry on crusader horses.

Balian d’Ibelin’s stallions are important characters in all three parts of my biographical novel about Balian, and the duties of kings and vassals is natural a fundamental component of the historical developments.

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Friday, June 17, 2016

An Eye for an Eye: Or the Prelude to the Fourth Crusade

The Fourth Crusade, in which a host originally raised to relieve the Holy Land was instead deployed to attack and sack the Christian city of Constantinople, is usually described as an act of perfidy, barbarity and Western arrogance. Even at the time, it was highly controversial, with many of the initial crusaders, (e.g. Simon de Montfort the Elder and his sons) refusing to take part.

But no historical event is without its antecedents, and the Fourth Crusade is no exception. There was a long and complex history of interaction between the West and the Byzantine Empire that included both periods of cooperation and periods of deep suspicion, hostility and conflict. While that long history is beyond the scope of a blog entry, two important incidents of that history go a long way to explaining the Fourth Crusade.

After a long and mutually productive alliance between the Eastern Roman Empire and the city-state of Venice, tensions began to develop in the mid-12th century.  The Venetians opposed the Byzantine Emperor’s expansion in Dalmatia and his aggressive policies in Southern Italy. Meanwhile, the Venetian enclaves in the Byzantine Empire and especially in Constantinople were increasingly resented by the local population, who considered them arrogant and insufferable — largely because they were exempt from certain taxes and had become extremely wealthy.  So, in a move reminiscent of Philip IV of France’s arrest of the Templars 147 years later, on March 12, 1171, Emperor Manuel I ordered the simultaneous arrest of all Venetians in his realm by the local authorities.  He then confiscated all their property and held the captives prisoner.  

Venice launched a naval expedition to free the prisoners, but it was repelled and negotiations for the release of the prisoners got nowhere. For the time being, Venice had to capitulate, but the insult, the massive loss of wealth and loss of freedom for thousands of citizens was not something proud Venice was prepared to forget. Venice had good reason to hate the Byzantine Empire and to want revenge in 1204.

Meanwhile, Venice’s rivals Pisa and Genoa initially benefited from the abrupt elimination of Venetian presence in the Byzantine Empire.  For just over a decade, they basked in the sun of Imperial favor, expanding their own trading empires, especially after the death of Manuel I with the ascension of his 11 year old son, Alexius II.  Alexius II was the son of a Latin princess, namely the Princess Maria of Antioch, and she and her lover pursued a decidedly “pro-Western” policy — which soon aroused the hostility of the bureaucracy and the people in Constantinople. The anti-Western faction in the capital found an ally in the ambition of an uncle of the late Manuel I, and in April 1182 the mob was set loose on the Latin population in Constantinople.

According to Charles M. Brand in his history Byzantium Confronts the West, 1180-1204, (Harvard University Press, 1968): “The populace turned on the merchants, their families, and the Catholic monks and clerics who lived in the crowded quarters along the Golden Horn…When the mobs attacked, no attempt at defense was made. The crowds raced through the streets seeking Latins. The choicest victims were the helpless: women and children, the aged and the sick, priests and monks. They were killed in streets and houses, dragged from hiding places and slaughtered. Dwellings and churches full of refugees were burned, and at the Hospital of the Knights of St. John, the sick were murdered in their beds.  The clergy were the particular objects of the crowd’s hatred. The head of the pope’s emissary, Cardinal John, was cut off and dragged through the streets on the tail of a dog….The Orthodox clergy took the lead in searching out concealed Latins to deliver to the killers.”

Does this massacre of a few thousand people justify the Sack of Constantinople in 1204? Certainly not! But if the terror attacks of September 11, 2000 could fill a modern democracy with rage and the desire for revenge — including the willingness to conduct long, drawn-out and expensive wars in distant places and assassinations — than it is only reasonable to factor in the anger this massacre incited in the West when analyzing the causes of the Fourth Crusade.

Balian d'Ibelin's wife was a Byzantine Princess, Maria Comnena and the relationship between the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem and the Byzantine Empire plays a minor role in my biographical novel of Balian d'Ibelin. The first and second books in the series are already available for purchase.

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Friday, June 10, 2016

Justice for All: Courts for an Ethnically Diverse Population

Arguably the most fundamental function of any state is the administration of justice. It is when a government fails to deliver justice that it loses its legitimacy, and either becomes tyrannical or starts to disintegrate into anarchy. This is what makes the study of legal systems so essential to the understanding and assessment of the legitimacy and efficacy of any government. The legal system in the Kingdom of Jerusalem is no exception.

Fundamental to an effective system of justice is that the participants accept and recognize the legitimacy of the legal authorities. This is notoriously difficult when the administrators of justice speak a different language, have a different faith, or follow different legal traditions from the subjects of the legal system. As a result, the imposition of law by an invading force is inherently challenging, and wise conquerors have generally been cautious about replacing local law and custom with their own system.

The Kingdom of Jerusalem faced a particularly daunting challenge, because from its inception the Kingdom of Jerusalem was a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual and religiously diverse state.  Quite aside from the new comers from Western Europe, the native population of the Holy Land was already polyglot and non-homogeneous when the men of the First Crusade arrived. There were, for example, still Jews living in the Holy Land, although their numbers were comparatively small, a large portion of the native population had converted to Islam at some point in the more than four hundred years since the first Arab invasion. However, often forgotten by modern commentators, the majority of the population was composed of Orthodox Christians. These, in turn were composed not only of Syrian Orthodox Christians (both Maronite and Jacobite), but also Greek, Armenian, Coptic and even Ethiopian Orthodox communities.  

The rulers of the crusader states responded intelligently to the challenge confronting them by allowing a network of partially over-lapping local courts (in the vernacular) to continue, while adding two additional courts for the newcomers, the High Court (see separate entry) and the Low Court.  They then followed the overriding principle of judgement by one’s peers, supplemented by two corollary principles: that in disputes between individuals from different strata of society, the case should be tried before the peers of the weaker (lower) person, and in cases between individuals from different ethnic groups of the same strata, the case should be brought before the peers of the defendant. 

The practical outcome of this theoretical approach is that in all matters of family and religious law, the residents of the crusader states sought resolution from the religious authorities of their respective religion whether Islam, Judaism, one of the many forms of Orthodoxy, or before Latin Christian (Catholic) ecclesiastical courts. In rural areas, furthermore, civil and criminal cases not involving a Frank were tried before local/native judges in accordance with the laws and customs predating the First Crusade.

In urban areas, however, the intermingling of peoples was too great to allow such a simple rule, and the Cour de la Fond evolved for the resolution of commercial cases and the Cour de la Chaine evolved for the resolution of maritime disputes. In each, a representative of the lord presided over the court as “bailli,” but did not rule on a case. Rather, the case was tried by six jurors drawn from the same class of the parties to the dispute. So, for example, in the Cour de la Chaine, the jurors had to be sailors or merchants. Of these, two were Franks and four natives, a ratio that clearly favored the Franks on a national scale, but may have roughly reflected the composition of urban populations because a large portion of new immigrants were city dwellers, and, correspondingly, a larger portion of the rural population was native.

However, there was an exception to the jurisdiction of these court, which again recognized the diversity of the population: the independent “communes” or urban colonies of the Italian city states were granted the right rule on cases involving their own members in accordance to their own laws and before their own courts. Thus two Venetians would be tried by the laws of Venice, and Pisans by the laws of Pisa etc. Disputes between members of different communes, however, would be tried in the courts of the defendant.

During the first century of the crusader states, however, the communes were a comparatively small minority and the bulk of the Frankish population was drawn from all across Western Europe from Norway to Sicily. These residents of the crusader states were Westerners, whose common language was Latin/French, and making them subject to the local Syrian courts would have been illogical and unacceptable.  Instead, a new court, the Cour des Bourgeois, or Low Court, was created to address criminal and civil cases involving non-noble Franks that did not fall within the jurisdiction of the commercial or maritime courts. Although often translated into English as the Lower Court, the Cour de Bourgeois was the only court for disputes involving burghers or bourgeois residents. The High Court was not an appellate court; it was the court for disputes between members of the First Estate or feudal elite, i.e. knights, nobles, and vassals of the king.  

In the Cour de Bourgeois cases were tried before a “viscount” appointed by the local lord (e.g. the King in royal domains, the Prince of Galilee in Galilee, the Count of Jaffa in Jaffa and Ascalon, the Lord of Oultrejourdain, Ibelin, Sidon etc. in their respective baronies), and twelve jurors. The viscount like the baillis of the other courts did not have a say in the verdict or sentence but was charged with ensuring due process, maintaining order in the courtroom, and enforcing the sentences pronounced by the jurors.

Interestingly, the various Cour de Bourgeois met more regularly than the High Court, presumably because they had more business to conduct given the larger numbers of burgers compared to nobles. Another striking feature of these courts was the right of the litigants to request “counsel” from the court. If requested (and it was highly recommended by the medieval commentators!), the court appointed one of the jurors, who thereafter did not sit in judgement of the case but became an advocate, much like a court-appointed lawyer today. Furthermore, although there was not yet a profession known as “lawyers,” men who gained a reputation for understanding the law were revered and repeatedly appointed either as jurors or counsellors. The names of some have come down to us, such as John d’Ibelin, and Philip of Novare, because they were also legal scholars, who wrote legal tracts about the laws they were interpreting. There was, however, no such thing as the “prosecution.” The state as such had not yet assumed the role of pursuing justice and punishing crime for itself. Instead, someone had to bring a case to trial by accusing another person of a violation of the law. 

Somewhat alienating to modern sensibilities, trial by combat or some other form of “test” (fire or water) were the preferred means of determining guilt and innocence. But this was normal in this period and accepted by litigant and defendant alike. 

My novels set in the crusader states attempt to reconstruct society accurately including an accurate portrayal of the legal system.

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