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Thursday, June 27, 2019

Frankish MIlitary Innovations: Mounted Archers

The development of "fighting boxes" composed of infantry and cavalry fighting -- and moving -- as a tightly disciplined unit was a radical innovation in the fighting tactics of the medieval armies of the 12th and 13th centuries. The Frankish armies of Outremer developed and employed this tactic to great effect in countless battles, but it was not the only tactical innovation that enabled the crusader states to survive despite being surrounded by numerically superior enemies intent on pushing them into the sea. The other -- far too often overlooked -- innovation was the introduction of mounted archers. Yuval Harari has provided documentation to show that this arm made up on average 50% of the mounted strength of the armies of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Today I look at the forgotten mounted archers of the crusader states.

There was no tradition of mounted archers in Western Europe due to: 1) the cost of raising and maintaining horses of sufficient strength, agility, and intelligence to be suitable for mounted combat and 2) to the broken and wooded terrain that did not favor this kind of troops. The limited numbers of horses suitable for combat were bred to carry knights in full armor, i.e. for strength more than speed. The weapons of the knights, furthermore, were the lance and the sword, and the ethos of chivalry was one of individual "prowess" in close combat, man-to-man. Archery, by nature a long-distance weapon, was the province of mercenaries (who were proficient with cross-bows) and, later, the "yeoman" class that became the backbone of later English armies with their unique longbows. But that was still in the future. In the age of the crusades, "archery" in Europe was viewed primarily as a defensive weapon, useful first and foremost in siege warfare.

In the Middle East, in contrast, the open steppe was ideal both for the breeding, rearing and the deployment of light cavalry. The Crusaders came in contact with the superb horse-archers of the Turks almost as soon as they crossed into Asia. Turkish mounted archers had by the First Crusade already conquered most of central Asia. They were a formidable enemy and the Franks who settled in Outremer and faced the Turkish archers in every engagement learned to respect them. They also rapidly recognized the advantages that this kind of warrior offered in the environment that they now inhabited.

The fighting box (described last week) was a tactical formation that protected the heavy cavalry and enabled it to save its strength for a massed charged. It was invaluable during a fighting retreat. It was highly effective in a set-piece battle. But it was worthless for other kinds of military operations.

The Franks recognized that they needed light cavalry capable of conducting reconnaissance, carrying out hit-and-run raids, and providing a protective screen for their “fighting box.” While the first two of these functions were handled by knights in the West, this option was not available in the crusader states because of the nature of the terrain and the enemy. The heavy horses of the Franks, bred to carry fully armored knights, could not — one on one — escape the faster, lighter horses of the Turks. Heavy cavalry deployed on reconnaissance, therefore, was more likely to be ambushed and eliminated than get back with the intelligence needed by the main army. 

Light cavalry could also be used for hit-and-run raids against enemy camps or territory. Again, only the faster, native horses carrying lightly armored riders armed with bows were suitable for this kind of task. Light cavalry was also essential for communication as fleet messengers who at least had a chance of out-running any enemy were necessary to bring messages from one army unit to another or between a castle and a field army. 

The Franks not only recognized the need for light cavalry, they were remarkably rapid in developing it. Already by 1109, there are references in the primary sources to these troops. From that point forward, they played an increasingly important role in the fighting tactics and military successes of the Frankish armies of Outremer, in some cases operating independently, and in other cases in support of the infantry and heavy cavalry. Like the “fighting box,” they contributed substantially to the ability of the Frankish kingdoms to survive for two hundred years despite being dramatically outnumbered by their opponents.

That is a remarkable achievement. Mastering horsemanship to the point where a man could survive in mounted combat took years -- literally. The 13th-century scholar Philip de Novare noted: "he will never ride well who did not learn it when young."[1] Mastering archery even from solid ground took equally as long. Becoming an effectively mounted archer took years and years of very hard, concentrated training. It did not happen overnight. It required having the time (i.e. leisure) to train and the money for horses -- one of the most expensive commodities in the Middle Ages. In short, poor people did not become mounted archers -- unless they were the slaves of rich people such as the Mamluks of the Saracens. This was not the tradition in the Crusader kingdoms that never employed slave soldiers in any capacity.

So who were the mounted archers of the Crusader kingdoms and where did they come from? 

Frankish mounted archers are misleadingly but consistently referred to as “Turcopoles” in the primary sources of the period. Despite the name, which was borrowed from the Byzantines, the term “Turcopole” in the context of the crusader states refers not to an ethnic group but simply to “mounted archers” — of diverse ethnic character.

The “Turcopoles” were not Muslim converts much less Muslim troops, as Yuval Harari demonstrates in his lengthy essay on the topic. [2] Harari notes: 
"Though the scale of Muslim conversion and desertion was relatively is doubtful whether the Franks in general, and the military orders in particular, would have agreed to rely on troops of Muslim origin." [3]
Furthermore, had they been apostate Muslims they would have been the object of outrage and horror in the entire Islamic world, something that would have been reflected in Muslim sources -- but is not. On the contrary, not only are they referred to neutrally there are numerous instances of prisoner exchanges involving Turcopoles. Had the Turcopoles been apostate Muslims that would have been impossible, since Sharia law prescribes execution for anyone who abjures Islam. There is not one instance where Turcopoles are singled out for verbal or physical abuse in the Muslim sources -- most of which were written by religious scholars with an acute sense of religious duty and understanding of Sharia law. 

Nor were the Turcopoles the children of mixed marriages. Harari notes that in all his research he failed to find a single documented case of a "half-caste Turcople."[4] The numbers also speak against this thesis. The number of Turcopoles at the Battle of Hattin alone, for example, was 4,000 according to the Brevis Historia. Based on numbers at 16 different engagements and other references, Harari concludes that the Turcopoles made up on average 50% of the mounted force fielded by the Franks.[5] Furthermore, both the Templars and Hospitallers had Turcopoles integrated into their organizations and their Rule carefully accounts for them.  

The most reasonable explanation of who the Turcopoles were is that they were primarily native (Orthodox) Christians. The principal objection to this conclusion is that four hundred years of Muslim oppression during which the Christian population had been prohibited from riding horses and carrying arms eliminated any military traditions and capacity. Certainly -- in the first generation. Which, incidentally, explains why the Turcopoles referred to in the early battles did not do particularly well.  

Two to three generations later, however, the situation was obviously different. Furthermore, the argument of "no military tradition" does not apply to the Armenians, who were a significant minority in the crusader kingdoms. There are also documented cases of native Christians becoming knights.[6] Indeed, there are instances of native Christians having command authority over Franks. [7] If they could become knights (i.e. heavy cavalrymen), there is no reason why they could not have become light cavalrymen.  

Last but not least, the value of light cavalry in the context of Outremer increased if the Frankish light cavalry would pass for Turkish cavalry and blend in with a native population that consisted primarily of Orthodox Christians with a large Muslim minority. These characteristics and a fluent/native command of Arabic was essential for Turcopoles to conduct intelligence and reconnaissance effectively -- as they demonstrably did on numerous occasions.  As I have pointed out elsewhere, the excellent intelligence enjoyed by the Kingdom Jerusalem enabled the Franks to muster their armies in time to confront invading Muslim forces again and again. Indeed, Michael Ehrlich in his reassessment of the Battle of Montgisard in 1177, underlines how superior Frankish reconnaissance and intelligence was in this Christian victory -- a victory that is often treated as "a miracle" or simply "good luck." [8]

The Turcopoles of Outremer deserve far more attention and credit than they have been given by historians and novelists to date!

[1]  Novare quoted in Joshua Prawer, "Social Classes in the Latin KIngdom," A History of the Crusades Volume Five: The Impact of the Crusades on the Near East," editors Norman Zacour and Harry Hazard (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1985) 125.
[2] Yuval Harari, “The Military role of the Frankish Turcopoles: A Reassessment,” Mediterranean Historical Review, 12:1, 75-116.

[3]  Harari, 105.
[4] Harari, 102.
[5] Harari, 75-86.
[6] Christopher MacEvitt, The Crusades and the Christian World of the East: Rought Tolerance (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania Univ. Press, 2008), 153-156.
[7] Harari, 104.
[8] Michael Ehrlich, "Saint Cather's Day Miracle - the Battle of Montgisard," Journal of Medieval Military History, Vol. XI, 95-106.

Turcopoles feature in nearly all my novels set in the crusader states, particularly Knight of Jerusalem and Rebels against Tyranny.

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Dr. Helena P. Schrader holds a PhD in History.
She is the Chief Editor of the Real Crusades History Blog.
She is an award-winning novelist and author of numerous books both fiction and non-fiction. Her three-part biography of Balian d'Ibelin won a total of 14 literary accolades. Her current series describes the civil war in Outremer between Emperor Frederick andthe barons led by John d'Ibelin the Lord of Beirut. Dr. Schrader is also working on a non-fiction book describing the crusader kingdoms. You can find out more at:

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Frankish Military Innovations: The Fighting Box

The crusader states established in the Levant in the wake of the First Crusade were surrounded by hostile states, whose leaders increasingly called for jihad to push the “interlopers” back into the sea. Given the vast numerical superiority of their enemies, it is remarkable that these enclaves of Christian control were able to survive for nearly 200 years. Indeed, from 1100 to 1180 and again from 1197–1244, the armies of the Franks were predominantly on the offensive. This was largely due to two military innovations adopted by the Franks very soon after their arrival in the Holy Land: the "fighting box" and mounted archers. Today I will discuss the "fighting box" and it's importance.

To appreciate the magnitude of the innovations made by the Franks, one must first call to mind that the era of the crusades (the 12th and 13th centuries) was characterized in Western Europe by feudal armies composed of large numbers of poorly equipped amateur infantry (feudal levees), small numbers of mercenaries armed predominantly with cross-bows, pikes, and swords, and even smaller numbers of professional cavalry: knights. Although the later had excellent weapons, armor, and training, they were very expensive to train and equip. These armies were extremely expensive to maintain and were therefore used only rarely and sporadically, while the bulk of fighting consisted of raids designed to destroy the economic base of the enemy by burning crops and orchards and destroying economic assets such as mills, bridges, etc. 

Furthermore, because of the topography and fragmented nature of feudal holdings, confrontations tended to be very localized. Likewise, feudalism fostered affinities that were local, based on personal fealty to one’s overlord rather than national armies. While the amateur infantry received little to no training and was prone to panic and flight, the professional knights “made a cult of bravery…[that] promoted a highly individualistic ethos of war….(1) The result was a style of warfare dominated by sieges of key castles supported by attacks on the surrounding economic base. Any direct combat tended to be small-scale, hand-to-hand clashes between contingents of knights in which individual valor, and personal rivalries or animosities played an important role.

When the First Crusade crossed into Asia, however, the Europeans were suddenly confronted with a completely new form of warfare. The Turks, who had established their dominance across the Middle East, were a nomadic people who had triumphed in an open and arid landscape by deploying large hordes of light cavalry armed with bows. The preferred tactic of the Turks was to surround their enemies and then kill them slowly and surely from a distance, without engaging in close combat. Their small, agile horses were fleet and if they were attacked, they fled, waited for their pursuers to tire, and then attacked again. 

The heavily armored knights of Europe astonished the Turks by their ability to withstand volley after volley of arrows unharmed, yet the European knights could not win a battle unless they could force the Turks to engage in hand-to-hand combat, where the heavier weapons and greater strength of the Frankish knights and horses could prove decisive. A massed charge of Frankish knights proved decisive in battle after battle — but a poorly-timed or poorly-executed charge almost always resulted in disaster for the Franks. Furthermore, the Turks soon recognized that while the fully armored knights were almost invulnerable, their unarmored horses were their Achilles heel. A knight without a horse was not only worthless, he was cold meat. So the Turks rapidly learned to concentrate their arrows on the horses and to try to provoke the knights into charging after them individually or in small, harmless groups that could be lured away from their comrades and ambushed as soon as their horses tired. 

To counter these tactics, the Franks adopted two innovations: the fighting box and the mounted archers. Today I look at the "fighting box" and next week at mounted archers.

The fighting box was a formation in which the most vulnerable components of an army (baggage train, sick and wounded) were placed in the center, surrounded by mounted knights, who were in turn surrounded by infantry with shields. The infantry protected the horses of the knights — until the commander decided it was time to risk a charge. Then the infantry would open and the heavy cavalry would charge the enemy. These fighting boxes could defend stationary positions — or move as a square across long distances. In a retreat the Franks would take the dead along, giving the enemy the impression that there were no casualties at all. When holding firm positions, fighting strength could be maintained by rotating the front-line units. 

The most important feature of this tactic is that it required first and foremost discipline — from all participants. Marching and fighting simultaneously are not easy. To be effective, the fighting box had to work as a single unit. It was necessary to prevent gaps from opening up between the ranks yet to keep moving without tiring the infantry. It was important for the infantry to keep their shields locked together — more like a Spartan phalanx than anything vaguely familiar from medieval Europe. 

The most famous campaign in which this formation was used to excellent effect was the march from Acre to Jaffa during the Third Crusade. Yet while Richard the Lionheart proved a master in deploying this formation and added support from his fleet, he was not the inventor of this tactic. The Franks of Outremer had used it for nearly 100 years before the Third Crusade. Indeed, the armies of the Kingdom of Jerusalem had used it, again and again, something that testifies to the remarkable discipline of these armies — and, incidentally, contributed to greater respect for infantry and the burghers that comprised it. When that discipline broke down due to poor leadership, however, the result was utter obliteration — as at the Battle of Hattin. 

(1)  France, John, “Warfare in the Mediterranean Region in the Age of the Crusades, 1095–1291: A Clash of Contrasts,” The Crusades and the Near East: Cultural Histories, ed. Conor Kostick (London: Routledge, 2011, 9–26) 11.

The use of a fighting box is described in detail in Envoy of Jerusalem, that covers the Battle of Arsuf.

Dr. Helena P. Schrader holds a PhD in History.
She is the Chief Editor of the Real Crusades History Blog.
She is an award-winning novelist and author of numerous books both fiction and non-fiction. Her three-part biography of Balian d'Ibelin won a total of 14 literary accolades. Her current series describes the civil war in Outremer between Emperor Frederick andthe barons led by John d'Ibelin the Lord of Beirut. Dr. Schrader is also working on a non-fiction book describing the crusader kingdoms. You can find out more at:

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Technology Transfer in the Crusader States

It has become commonplace to claim that the greatest benefit to the Crusades was the exposure of backward and barbarous Western Europeans to the "more advanced" civilizations of the Muslim world. Yet the evidence demonstrates that the situation was considerably more nuanced and development was a two-way street. Furthermore, the society most ready to adapt is not always the weakest or most backward.

Starting with the situation at the baseline, Islamic culture had undoubtedly experienced a significant flourishing in the centuries immediately preceding the Crusades. However, far from being trapped in a "dark age," Europe was likewise going through a period of significant development and technological advancement. Contrary to popular notions, throughout the so-called “Dark Ages” the learning of the ancient Greeks was preserved — and translated into Latin. Furthermore, major technological innovations were making Europe more prosperous and its people healthier than ever before. Professor Rodney Stark argues that “medieval Europeans may have been the first human group whose genetic potential was not badly stunted by poor diet, with the result that they were, on average, bigger, healthier and more energetic than ordinary people elsewhere.”[1]

As a result, the exchange of knowledge and technology that followed the First Crusade was by no means a one-way street. While the Franks soon learned to employ light cavalry in the form of native Christian horse-archers (misleadingly called Turcopoles despite being neither Turkish and nor apostate Muslims), the Saracens developed heavy artillery for siege warfare. While the Franks learned about paper manufacturing and improved glass-making techniques from the Syrians, the Arabs learned from the Franks about four-wheeled carts and industrial methods for sugar manufacturing. While the custom of public baths moved from east to west, the concept of chimneys moved in the opposite direction.


Nor should we automatically assume that the culture more open to adaptation was the weaker culture. For example, there is no question that European naval architecture was vastly superior to contemporary Arab shipping, yet the Arabs were unable to adopt Western shipping technology largely due to the poor quality of their shipwrights and sailors. The chimneys built in Holy Land by the Franks fell into disrepair and then disappeared from local architecture altogether after the departure of the Franks not because chimneys are useless or backward, but due to the sheer inertia of “tradition.”

Nor should we forget that many of the “inventions” we associate with the “East” were not Saracen in origin, but Greek. One classic example of this is the concept of hospitals as places where professional medical practitioners provide medical treatment to cure the sick. Such institutions were unknown in Western Europe before the First Crusade. By the time the Crusaders arrived in the Holy Land, the Arabs indeed had sophisticated hospitals, yet the origins of these Arab institutions lay in Byzantium. The first hospitals in the Eastern Roman Empire are recorded in the fourth century AD; the earliest hospitals in the Muslim Middle East did not appear until the late eighth or ninth century.[2] Under the aegis of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, (known simply as “the Hospitallers”) hospitals were adopted into the Western European culture. 

The Hospital in Acre - photo by the author
An important factor impacting the direction of technology transfer was the environment. The Franks -- but not their Arab and Turkish opponents -- were living in a new environment. This meant the Franks needed to adapt to that environment -- one with extremes of heat unknown in their homeland, 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 might have been for, say, living 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 armor made sense. That the Franks rapidly did so, and -- even more surprising -- that it became a fashion across Western Europe is not a mark of the inferiority of previous forms of dress. The surcoat had a function that was directly related to the physical environment in the Near East. It's 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.

The prevalence of stone structures in the crusader states was likewise a function of the scarcity of wood rather than superior skills on the part of Arab masons. In his outstanding examination of crusader castles, Professor Ronnie Ellenblum likewise demonstrates that it was the crusaders that first made significant advances in military architecture. Mamluks learned fast and later Muslim castles were in no way inferior to those of the crusaders, but it was the crusaders who first introduced key features from thicker and higher concentric walls to posterns, vaulted chambers in the "safe-zones," and massive storage to withstand lengthy sieges. [3]
Frankish masonry at St. Annes' in Jerusalem - photo by the author
The Frankish adoption of covered markets reflected the need to keep perishable goods out of the intense summer sun, the flies and the dust -- not an inherent superiority of covered versus open markets. 

Covered Market in Acre - photo by the author
Adaptation from West to East, on the other hand, was inhibited by both the fact that the environment remained the same for the Muslims and by Muslim presumptions of superiority. The Muslims viewed Franks as fundamentally backward because they were “blasphemers worshipping God incorrectly…or as idolaters worshipping cross-shaped idols.”[4] 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.”[5] 

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

That culture is incorporated in all my novels set in the crusader states:

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Dr. Helena P. Schrader holds a PhD in History.
She is the Chief Editor of the Real Crusades History Blog.
She is an award-winning novelist and author of numerous books both fiction and non-fiction. Her three-part biography of Balian d'Ibelin won a total of 14 literary accolades. Her current series describes the civil war in Outremer between Emperor Frederick andthe barons led by John d'Ibelin the Lord of Beirut. Dr. Schrader is also working on a non-fiction book describing the crusader kingdoms. You can find out more at:

[1] Stark, Rodney. God’s Battalions: The Case for the Crusades, (New York: HarperOne, 2009) 70.
[2] Mitchell, Piers D., Medicine in the Crusades: Warfare, Wounds and the Medieval Surgeon (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2004) 49-50. Also, Edgington, Susan B., “Oriental and Occidental Medicine in the Crusader States,” in The Crusades and the Near East: Cultural Histories, ed. Conor Kostick (London: Routledge, 2011) 208.

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

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

[5] Christie, 77-78.