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Thursday, October 31, 2019

Commanding a Crusade

"A crusade army was, in effect, a loosely organized mob of soldiers, clergy, servants, and followers heading in roughly the same direction for roughly the same purposes. Once launched, it could be controlled no more than the wind or the sea."
Professor Thomas Madden in The Concise History of the Crusades

When speaking or writing about the crusades, it is easy to forget just how different they were from modern military campaigns, not just in terms of weapons, clothes, and transport but with regard to structure and command and control.

First and foremost, as Professor Madden so eloquently pointed out, crusades were not regular armies with a clear command structure and officers nor were they composed of soldiers bound by discipline. Instead, they were collections of pilgrims led by prominent pilgrims whose presence (and pocketbooks) inspired greater or smaller numbers of other men to join them in their great undertaking. Not even the Holy Roman Emperor nor the various crusading kings from Richard the Lionheart to St. Louis commanded the troops of the crusades they led in the modern sense of the word. They literally could not order any action -- unless they had first persuaded their followers to follow their lead and their proposed course of action. 

The building blocks of a crusading army were individual pilgrims who had sufficient funds to finance such a long journey -- or could persuade someone else to finance it for them. The most common means to obtain the latter in the context of the crusades was to offer to serve in the entourage of a wealthier man. Thus, whether archer, sergeant or other foot-soldier, a man of modest means and common birth would look to attach himself to a knight or lord who would undertake to feed him and pay him wages throughout the journey in exchange for his "service."

Individual knights (with their squire, horses and one or more servants) would likewise attach themselves to a wealthier lord. These individual knights (their squire and servants like their horses being part of the "unit" that made a knight) were then "household" knights attached to another knight or lord. 

Wealthier knights that could afford to pay/provision other knights were known as "bannerets." They did not have to be noblemen or lords. A knight-banneret was simply a knight that commanded other knights, and usually some infantry (archers, pikemen) and maybe a couple of mounted sergeants as well. However, noblemen were all bannerets in the sense that they commanded other knights, at a minimum the knights of their own household or entourage. Most noblemen, however, were wealthy enough to engage not only their own household knights, sergeants, and soldiers, but to pay and provision other bannerets. Kings generally had the resources and prestige to solicit the support of many of their own barons as well as other independent knights.

Yet these relationships were fluid. As Professor Jonathan Riley-Smith words it:
The petty lords...and knights were independent and their allegiances constantly shifted as circumstances changed and the ability of princes to reward them and their little entourages came and went. [Jonathan Riley-Smith, The Crusades: A History (New York: Bloomsbury, 2014) 62-63.

Nor was it just the "petty lords" and individual knights that changed their "employers" at whim. A famous case occurred in the Third Crusade, when the comparatively wealthy Henri, Count of Champagne, ran short of funds and asked for a loan from his uncle the King of France, in whose force he was then serving. The penny-pinching Philip II turned him down, so Henri turned to his other uncle, the King of England. Richard I gave generously, and Henri transferred his allegiance, bringing glittering band of Champagnois knights to serve under the banner of the King of England. 

This was possible because a crusade was not a "nationalist" undertaking and oaths of fealty that bound vassals to their lords at home were irrelevant in the context of a pilgrimage far beyond the borders of their liege's territory. Indeed, it could be argued that oaths of fealty were temporary suspended or superseded by the oath to God to fight for Christ. Thus knights of the Holy Roman Empire might choose to ride under a French or English banner, and vice versa. The reputation of an individual commander as a man who looked after his men, paid well, or divided booty liberally thus impacted the size of their troop.

That said, at the core of any band of soldiers under a banner was the leader surrounded by his household, his dependants (servants) and his kin. Most lords had brothers, uncles, nephews and cousins, who rode with them. Good lords retained the loyalty of those of their vassals who had embarked on the crusade with them. They traveled surrounded by these well-knit groups of men who knew each other well and spoke the same language. 

What these structures meant for the command of a crusade was that there was never a single unified command, with the possible exception of St. Louis' two crusades. All the other crusades, starting with the First, were characterized by fragmented leadership. 

During the First Crusade there were four different attempts to designate a commander-in-chief, and had the Byzantine Emperor agreed to lead the campaign he would undoubtedly have assumed this function without dissent -- but he didn't. None of the western leaders, however, was strong enough to either intimidate or inspire the other princes to subordinate themselves to him. 

The Second Crusade notoriously nearly fell apart because King Louis could not agree with the Prince of Antioch on a goal. The Third Crusade was weakened by the bickering between Philip of France and England of Richard, and later by the French refusal to follow Richard. The Fourth Crusade was characterized by assemblies at every stage along the way at which everyone discussed what to do next. With each decision that took the crusaders closer to the sack of Constantinople, more crusaders refused to follow the leadership and struck off on their own. The Fifth Crusade was riven by rivalries and bitter fights over strategy and spoils between the pope's representative, the Holy Roman Emperor's deputy and the King of Jerusalem. The Sixth Crusade saw the absurd situation of an excommunicated Emperor unable to command the forces of the military orders and alienating the local barons into revolt. 

Precisely because there was no commander-in-chief, the crusades were -- in the words of Professor Riley-Smith -- "run by committees and assemblies." On the one hand, each armed band engaged in the routine process familiar from government at home in which a lord (read banneret) consulted with his principle followers over any major decision. On the other hand, all the principle lords regularly met in "council" as necessary in order to make command decisions. Last but not least, the crusade leadership would call assemblies of the entire host in which proposals were put to the entire body of pilgrims, great and small.

This may surprise those unfamiliar with the Middle Ages. Yet medieval society was anything but authoritarian. On the contrary, society was communal and consensual as well as hierarchical. The medieval peasant was not a slave taking orders, but a member of society required to participate in consensus-building in daily life. At the village level, for example, basic decisions about planting, crop rotation and harvesting were taken communally. In the courts, judgments were reached by a jury, not handed down by the lord or judge. 

On crusade, "the non-noble elements...periodically acted in concert to influence the decisions of the leaders who regularly consulted them." [Riley-Smith, 63] During the First Crusade, for example, the common soldiers threatened to elect their own leaders unless the princes agreed to leave Antioch and the march to Jerusalem. In the Third Crusade, the common soldiers twice forced Richard the Lionheart to undertake a march toward Jerusalem against his better judgment. Only with great difficulty was Richard able to dissuade them from making a costly attempt at an assault -- both times in an assembly of crusaders where every man had a voice. 

Thus, while the lack of a unified command may strike us as a severe weakness for a military campaign, it was also a reflection of society and an important check on the leadership that was constantly required to explain and justify itself and its actions. 
Two of my novels, both winners of multiple literary awards, describe crusades: 
"Envoy of Jerusalem" describes the Third Crusade
"Rebels against Tyranny" describes the Sixth.

                               Best Christian Historical Fiction 2017 and 2019

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:

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

The Franks of Cyprus

Just as the native population of Cyprus differed in character from the local populations found on the mainland of Syria, the Frankish elite that established itself on Cyprus differed in subtle but significant ways from the elite of the early crusading states.

The Frankish Abbey of Bellapais as it looks today.
Frankish rule was established on the island of Cyprus not by crusaders who had slogged their way across Europe and Asia in a grueling campaign characterized by hardship, attrition, and blood, but rather by the disinherited descendants of those first crusaders. The first Frankish lord, Guy de Lusignan, had the dubious honor of being responsible for the loss of the Kingdom of Jerusalem and with it the respect of the vast majority of his subjects. When he arrived in Cyprus in late 1192 with only a few supporters as landless as himself, he was a deposed king unable to completely come to terms with his fate and always wishing himself back in his "real" throne of Jerusalem.

Fortunately for the history of Cyprus, Guy de Lusignan died within two years of his arrival in Cyprus and it was his far more competent elder brother Aimery, who shaped the future kingdom. Aimery, although not born in Outremer, came from a family with a profound history of crusading. Aimery's great-grandfather, Hugh VI of Lusignan, had fought the Muslims in Spain and joined the crusade of 1101. His grandfather Hugh VII took part in the Second Crusade. Aimery's father Hugh VIII died in a Saracen prison. All three of Aimery's brothers, Hugh IX, Geoffrey, and Guy took part in the Third Crusade. Aimery, however, was the first of his family to settle in Outremer, something he did in roughly 1170. He married into one of the established families, the Ibelins, and he rose to be Constable of the Kingdom under Baldwin IV. When Aimery stepped into his brother's shoes as Lord of Cyprus in 1194, he was far more a "Poulain" (a Frankish native) in his outlook than an outsider. That meant he understood compromise, adaptation, and survival in an "alien" environment.

He was surrounded, furthermore, by other "Poulains" rather than crusaders. His wife, Eschiva d'Ibelin, belonged to the third generation of settlers in the Holy Land; she and her parents had both been born there and her grandfather had come to Outremer sometime before 1115 -- possibly with the First Crusade. The knights with Aimery were likewise men who had lost their lands in Syria -- men who had once held fiefs in Oultrejourdain and Galilee, in Hebron and Bethsan and Nazareth or in Ascalon and Gaza -- all those areas of the former Kingdom of Jerusalem that had not been recaptured in the course of the Third Crusade. They too knew that survival in the Near East required more than force of arms; it required cooperation with the native population and exchange in the form of trade and diplomatic relations with the surrounding states.

Although their names are largely lost now, we know that two sons of the Lord of Bethsan, Philip and Baldwin, went to Cyprus. A Renier de Jubail, evidently of the family holding that Syrian lordship, and a certain Reynald of Soissons, who had lost his fief in Nablus, also numbered among the knights of Cyprus. Notably, Humphrey of Toron, another man who had lost his claim to the crown of Jerusalem, was with Guy on the island. Guy and Humphrey had been married to two sisters, both Princesses of Jerusalem, and through their own actions had lost the support of the barons of the Kingdom; they must have made a sad pair. Like Guy, Toron disappears from the record before the end of the 12th century.

Aimery, in contrast, looked forward rather than back. In 1196, he obtained from the pope a bull establishing a Latin ecclesiastical hierarchy on the island with an Archbishop at Nicosia and four suffragans. More significantly, he surrendered Cyprus to the Holy Roman Emperor in exchange for a crown. Aimery styled himself "King of Cyprus" from 1196 onwards, and in 1247, Pope Innocent IV formally absolved the bonds between Cyprus and the Holy Roman Empire, making Cyprus a fully independent and autonomous kingdom.

Meanwhile, the island had benefitted from waves of settlers -- from the Latin East rather than the West. According to the legend recorded in the Continuation of the History of William of Tyre, Guy had sent "to Armenia, to Antioch, to Acre and through all the land" saying he would "give generously" to all settlers -- significantly not just knights but "sergeants and burgesses" too. The same account further stresses that they came: "shoemakers, masons and Arabic scribes...." [1] In short, it was not just the military elite that was invited to settle in Cyprus but everyone -- even the poor and possibly non-Latins as the reference to Arabic scribes suggests. In the second half of the 13th century, Cyprus would experience regular waves of refugees from Syria and Palestine as one metropolitan area after another fell successively to the Mamlukes. The waves became a veritable "flood" of refugees when, in 1291, the last vestiges of the crusader states on the mainland collapsed under the Mamluk onslaught.[2] Eventually, the Franks made up roughly one-quarter of the population of Cyprus, which put their number between 25,000 and 30,000.

Long before that flood, however, Cyprus benefitted from the arrival of other powerful families of Outremer: the Montbelliards, the Briennes, the Montforts, and, of course, the Ibelins. These were not landless families like most of the refugees, but powerful lords that retained significant landholdings and titles on the mainland. They had both resources and interests outside the Kingdom of Cyprus which proved both an advantage and a disadvantage. On the one hand, their holdings in Syria enabled them to bring resources and men to Cyprus, on the other hand, their interests in Syria often led them to draw resources out of Cyprus to prop-up their holdings on the mainland. Critically, and often overlooked, Cypriot fiefs enabled knights who had lost their fiefs on the mainland to maintain their character as land-holders. The lack of a Syrian fief did not necessarily mean that a knight inherently became part of the urban class, living in utter dependence on the handouts from the crown; many knights such as Philip de Novare held land-fiefs from the Syrian barons with property on Cyprus.

Of these families, the most important and most controversial was the Ibelins. The leading historian on the history of Cyprus, Prof. Peter Edbury,  argues that because Balian d'Ibelin was an inveterate opponent of Guy de Lusignan as King of Jerusalem "there was certainly no place for Balian of Ibelin" or his sons on Cyprus.[3] Yet Balian's sons already headed the witness list in 1217. Significantly, they also took part in the Fifth Crusade as vassals of the King of Cyprus rather than vassals of the King of Jerusalem. Last but not least, it was one of those sons, Philip, who was elected regent of Cyprus for the infant Henry in 1218. Had the Ibelin's really only "just arrived" this would be a meteoric rise indeed. But as Edbury himself admits the evidence is extremely scanty, with just five royal charters surviving for the years 1210-1217. In short, the absence of evidence may not be proof of the absence of presence. Certainly, Balian's son John "prospered during Aimery's reign" in Jerusalem.[4] Why should he not have prospered under the same king in Cyprus? (For more on this see:

The arms of Ibelin

The importance of the Ibelins is that they exemplify the nobility in Frankish Cyprus. While the daughters of the house married with the Lusignans a half-dozen times, the sons of the family dominated the Cypriot administration. Indeed, from 1230 to 1300 they monopolized the office of constable and from 1240 to 1360 that of seneschal -- all without making the office hereditary.[5] Yet they never threatened the status of the king. Edbury puts it this way: 
It is possible to see the Ibelins as over-mighty subjects attempting to dominate the crown, or alternatively as loyal cousellors and close kinsmen to whom kings would turn as a matter of course for advice and service. The history of the years before 1233 might lead one to suppose that the Ibelins were out to establish themselves as 'mayors of the palace,' intent on controlling and exploiting the crown for their own advantage. In fact the political developments in Cyprus during the remainder of the thirteeth century make it look as if the second alternative -- that the Ibelins were loyal counsellors -- was nearer to the truth. [6]
While this might have to do with the sterling character of the members of the House of Ibelin, it might also have to do with the fact that the Lusignan kings retained control of all the castles, the mint, and the judiciary -- in contrast to the situation in the Kingdom of Jerusalem. On the mainland, the major barons of the Kingdom of Jerusalem -- the Prince of Galilee, the Lords of Oultrejordain and Sidon -- were quasi-independent. Not only did they have the right to administer justice in their domains, they also maintained massive fortifications (Kerak and Montreal in Oultrejourdain come to mind) and large retinues of knights, turcopoles, and sergeants. In short, the barons of Jerusalem had independent power-bases from which they could, if they wanted to, defy the King of Jerusalem. Reynald de Chatillon allegedly did just that, when he told King Guy of Jerusalem that the king's peace with Saladin did not apply to the barony of Oultrejourdain at all. 

Chatillon's powerbase at Kerak today
The Kings of Jerusalem had little choice but to accept the situation because they were dependent on their barons for the defense of a threatened realm. The Kings of Cyprus, on the other hand, were surrounded not by jihadist states but by water. The fiefs they distributed brought their holders income and status, without requiring the investment of large sums of money in the construction, recruitment, and maintenance of expensive fortresses and garrisons. The nobles of Cyprus had more money for the pleasures of life -- hunting, hawking, patronage of the arts and church. For the kings, it meant that the nobility was not well-positioned to rebel, and far more dependent on royal patronage for status and prestige.

It was for their wealth and their love of pleasure that the Cypriot nobles became famous. At least one visitor, Ludolph von Sudheim, claimed in 1340 that the Cypriot knights and nobles were the "richest in the world." He noted that the Count of Jaffa (despite the title, a Cypriot) had 500 hunting dogs, others had dozens of falconers, while still others kept leopards for hunting. They also engaged in frequent tournaments. The Lusignan palace in Nicosia was considered one of the finest in the world, with a great throne room, many golden ornaments, tapestries, paintings, organs, clocks, multiple baths and fountains, gardens and a menagerie.[7]  (p. 175)

Unfortunately, the Lusignan palaces were all destroyed during the Ottoman occupation. We have only fragments of them left in the museums of Cyprus.

The character and lifestyle of the Franks on Cyprus are carefully reconstructed in my novels set in Lusignan Cyprus such as:

         Buy Now!                                                   Buy Now!                                             Buy Now!

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] Continuation of William of Tyre (139) quoted in Peter Edbury, The Kingdom of Cyprus and the Crusades 1194-1374, (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1991, 16.
[2] Angel Nicolaou-Konnari and Chris Schabel, eds. Cyprus: Society and Culture 1191-1374 (Boston: Brill, 2005)
[3] Peter Edbury, "Franks," Cyprus: Society and Culture 1191-1374, 87.
[4] Edbury, John of Ibelin, John of Ibelin and the Kingdom of Jerusalem, (Bury St. Edmunds: Boydell Press, 1997) 29.
[5] Peter Edbury, "Franks," Cyprus: Society and Culture 1191-1374, 89.
[6] Peter Edbury, Kingdom of Cyprus, 71.
[7] Hazard, Harry W ed., A History of the Crusades: The Art and Architecture of the Crusader States, Vol. 4 (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1977) 175.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Greeks in Crusader Cyprus

The last crusader kingdom, Cyprus, was significantly different in character from the crusader states founded on the mainland of the Levant. One key difference lay in the demography. Whereas the crusader states in Syria/Palestine were inhabited by a patchwork of minorities adhering to a variety of different faiths, the Kingdom of Cyprus at the time of the crusader conquest was a homogenous state inhabited almost completely by Greeks. Rather than a polyglot country where Arabic, Syriac, Greek, and Armenian were all spoken by large minorities, Greek was the only language of significance on Cyprus.  Likewise, in place of Christians adhering to diverse Christian rites living alongside large populations of Jews, Samaritans and Muslims, the population of Cyprus was overwhelmingly Greek Orthodox. This posed different challenges for the Frankish elite. Today I look at the Greek population and how it fared under Frankish rule. 

 Above the Greek Church in the Castle of St. Hilarion

As described in an earlier entry, Richard I of England conquered Cyprus from the Byzantine despot and self-proclaimed "Emperor" Isaac Comnenus.  Byzantine and local Cypriot sources attest to Isaac's harsh, arbitrary and rapacious regime. Isaac's policies had particularly targeted the aristocracy on the island; he "confiscated their property, and abolished privileges they had been granted by Manuel I Comnenos."[1] The resulting alienation of the Cypriot aristocracy caused many aristocratic families to either emigrate or cooperate with Richard the Lionheart. Richard secured much support from the Cypriot elite by promising a restoration of the laws and customs they had enjoyed under Manuel I in exchange for 50% of the revenues of the island. 

Unfortunately for the Cypriots, Richard had no interest in retaining control of the island and sold it to the Knights Templar. Either he "forgot" to tell them about the deal he had cut with the Cypriot aristocracy, or the Templars did not feel bound by it. Within a very short period of time, the population was in rebellion -- led by members of the remaining elites. Although the Templars soon recognized that they did not have the capacity to pacify the island, historians believe that the unrest contributed to more emigration on the part of the aristocratic families, something continued during the early years of Lusignan rule, a period which may well have been characterized by continued unrest and violence. (See: 

Yet, sometime before the turn of the 12th/13th century, the Lusignans (probably the savvy Aimery rather than the ever-incompetent Guy) recognized the need to co-opt the native population to their regime. While the tale about Guy asking Saladin for advice belongs in the realm of fantasy, there can be no question that the Lusignans gave away fiefs in order to create a feudal structure on the island. According to one version of the Continuation of William of Tyre, fiefs were given to both native Greeks on the island and to Latin knights. Other sources, however, highlight that Greeks were neither vassals of the king nor represented in the High Court. The best explanation of the apparent contradiction is that while Greek lords who were prepared to swear allegiance to the Lusignans were allowed to retain their land-holdings (i.e. their wealth), they were not expected to perform military service for those hands and so did not belong to the feudal elite. Meanwhile, however, the majority of the Greek aristocratic families appear to have returned to the Metropolis, Constantinople, leaving behind a population of predominantly peasants.

The peasants of Cyprus were divided into two categories in accordance with Byzantine practice. There were paroikoi, unfree peasants tied to the land similar to serfs in Western Europe, and francomati, free tenant farmers. The status of these lower classes was not substantially altered under Lusignan rule. Instead, the Lusignans strove for continuity. To this end, the new Frankish landowners, for the most part, employed Greek stewards on their estates and also drew on the services of Greek "jurats," who represented the interests of the communities, analogous to the "rais" that represented the Muslim peasants in the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

Furthermore, the Greek population enjoyed a high degree of judicial autonomy. Family law, for example, was from the start completely under the jurisdiction of the Greek Orthodox church, and with time the Greek ecclesiastical courts became a "kind of arbitration tribunal for every kind of litigation between Greeks."[2] Despite the stratification of society described in detail in the Assizes and the legal treatises of the 13th-century legal scholars such as Philip de Novare and John d'Ibelin of Jaffa, the royal bans -- that reflect everyday reality more than legal treatises do -- often treat Franks and Greeks equally.[3] Last but not least, there is no evidence that taxes or duties were increased under the Lusignans. 
Between these extremes (the aristocrats who for the most part chose to leave, and the peasants who had no choice but to remain and adapt) was a small middle-class of merchants and above all educated elites who had administered the island for Constantinople ever since the Arabs had been expelled in the tenth century. These bureaucrats were often members of the Orthodox clergy and sometimes belonged to ecclesiastical families (Greek priests could marry and so a career in the church was often a family tradition) with generations of government service. Others were well-educated secular professionals: lawyers and financial experts.

Such men were invaluable to the Lusignans -- who had the sense not only to employ them but to retain the very institutions that the Byzantines had used to administer the island: the sekreton (σεκρετον) and the kommerkion (κομμερκιον). The former was transformed in Latin to the "secrete" and the later "comerc." The Secrete was the government department that kept records of land ownership and taxes and evolved into the central financial office of the Lusignan government responsible for revenue collection and government expenditure. The Comerc was the royal department responsible for duties on imports and exports and market duties for the sale of merchandise. 

Nor was this reliance on Greek bureaucrats a temporary measure. Far from disappearing as the years passed, the Greek administrative class evolved into a new Greek "aristocracy of the pen." By the fifteenth century, some members of this wealthy Greek elite had been accepted into the Frankish nobility as well, although the rank of vassal required conversion to Latin Christianity. 

As in Latin Syria, however, the native -- in this case Greek -- elites contributed to the defense of the realm by providing the vitally important horse archers of the Cypriot army, the misleadingly named "turcopoles." Turcopoles evolved from Byzantine traditions and made up an estimated 50% of the cavalry of the army of Jerusalem. Although the evidence in Cyprus is more scanty, records of Turcopoles with clearly Greek names exist.

Culturally and socially, the Greeks remained dominant. Significantly, although a Latin church hierarchy was established on the island, the Orthodox Church retained its own hierarchy and clergy. The Latin church siphoned off income in the form of land and tithes from the Latin landlords, but the Greek church retained enough wealthy patrons to prosper throughout the Lusignan period as well. There was only one incident of persecution of Orthodox clergy in the entire Lusignan era -- and that was during a civil war in which the ruling king was a minor and probably not in control -- and possibly not present on the island at all.

There was, furthermore, no segregation based on religion or ethnicity; Greeks and Latins lived side-by-side. Indeed, despite attempts by the pope to prevent inter-marriage celebrated according to the Greek rites, by the 14th century such marriages were so common that the Latin Archbishop of Nicosia could only attempt to impose some restrictions over them. 


Two famous inter-faith marriages. 
Left: Manuel I and Marie of Antioch, 
Richt: Amalaric I and Maria Comnena

Likewise, although Latin remained the language of the High Court, Greek was the language of the streets and much of the diplomatic correspondence as well. While the Greeks learned French and Latin to advance their careers in the Lusignan bureaucracy, the Franks learned Greek in order to conduct business on their estates, engage in trade and commerce, and participate in the cultural activities around them. In the course of time, a unique Cypriot dialect, which borrowed many words from French, evolved and became the language of the island.

The overall fairness of Lusignan rule was reflected in the contentment of a population that did not once rise up in rebellion after the Lusignans were established. This was not due to "passivity" on the part of an oppressed population. After all, there had been two uprisings in the year between the departure of Richard I and the arrival of the Lusignans.  An even more telling comparison, however, is with Crete. Here there were seven major rebellions against Latin (Venetian) rule in the 13th-century, and another three in the 14th-century, while unrest continued into the 16th century. In contrast to the Venetians, however, Lusignan rule was not designed to exploit a colony for the benefit of the distant power. The Lusignans lived on Cyprus among their people and identified with them. In retrospect, the period of Lusignan rule would be looked back on as the "golden age" of Cypriot independence and prosperity. 

(1) Angel Nicolaou-Konnari, "Greeks," in Cyprus: Society and Culture, ed. Angel Nicolaou-Konnari and Chris Schabel [Boston: Brill, 2005] 41.
(2) Nicolaou-Konnari, 25. 
(3) Noclaou-Konnari, 23.

The Greeks on Cyprus play a significant role in The Emperor Strikes Back, a novel set in both Cyprus and the Kingdom of Jerusalem in the early 13th century.


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, October 10, 2019

Forgotten Heroes of the Middle Ages

When I bestride him, I soar,
I am a hawk;
he trots the air; 
the earth sings when he touches it...
He is pure air and fire
 (Henry V, Act III, Scene 7)

If any one image is associated in the popular mind with the Middle Ages then it is the knight in shining armor on a (usually) white horse. 


Nor is the image entirely misleading.  Throughout the age of chivalry, the mounted knight dominated both the battlefield and popular culture. Yet, as I will explain, it was not the warhorse (destrier) alone that made the horse the true hero of the Middle Ages.

A 13th-century encyclopedia of animals written by the Dominican scholar and bishop Albertus Magnus lists four kinds of horses: warhorses (destriers), riding horses (palfreys), racehorses, and workhorses. Of these, riding horses and racehorses can be said to vary little from the horses of today, at least in terms of function, with the caveat that "riding horses" of the Middle Ages had to travel long distances in often difficult terrain and all weathers. Their role in medieval society and economy were not exceptional, however, being the same as it had been for thousands of years before and hundreds yet to come. Warhorses and draft horses, on the other hand, were fundamental in shaping medieval society in unique ways.

Starting with the more obvious, a knight could not fulfill his military function without a warhorse.  From Hastings to Bannockburn, the charge of heavy cavalry (knights) was the dominant offensive tactic of the age. Although a cavalry charge could rarely lift a siege and never secure a castle, when enemies confronted one another across a battlefield, knights clashed on horseback. Furthermore, a  well-timed, well-led charge was almost invincible.

In order to be able to deliver such a knock-out blow, however, knights trained for years to master horsemanship, mounted combat, and fighting in teams/units. So did their horses.

Not every horse could cope with the noise, the sudden movements, the flash of sunlight on metal, the blows, the crush of horses, and the smell of blood. Not every horse had the strength or stamina to carry an armored knight for hours, or the agility to respond to sudden changes of direction, the need to spin about or sidestep. This meant that warhorses had to be carefully selected -- and trained. Ultimately, man and horse had to respond as one being if they were to be an effective fighting machine with a chance of survival. 

It was to train for mounted combat -- particularly in small units as teams -- that tournaments developed. Historian Andrea Hopkins in her excellent work Knights [London: Collins & Brown, 1990] notes: “it is hardly possible to overestimate the importance of the tournament to the culture of medieval knights.” She notes that in addition to being “a crucial training ground in which young knights could practice the handling of their horses and weapons, tactics of attack and defence, and of co-ordinating their actions with a team of companions," the tournament also: 
  ...provided an arena for the display of all important knightly virtues: prouesse in combat, courtoisie to the watching and judging ladies, largesse to crowds of minstrels, heralds, armourers, squires and other assorted hangers on, and qualities such as the franchise and debonairete with which a knight should conduct himself in triumph and disaster (the qualities which later developed into the European gentleman's sense of fair play), and the pite which he should exercise to his defeated opponents. (p. 108) 

Indeed, over the centuries, tournaments were transformed from training events very similar to genuine combat into sporting and social events quite divorced from the reality of war. By the 16th and 17th century they were little more than pageants  -- but that was after the end of the Middle Ages. In the High Middle Ages, they retained their value as training while also providing entertainment.

In the world of the tournament, a knight's destrier was not only a tool of war in training with him but a part of his persona. Like his armor, his coat of arms, and his crest, his horse formed a component part of his image and identity. A beautiful horse made a good impression on the ladies, but an exceptionally responsive, fast or determined horse might make the difference between victory and defeat. The death or injury to a good mount, on the other hand, could destroy a knight's prospects -- and his financial position as well because warhorses were extremely expensive. 

It was a measure of just how important good warhorses were that a knight forfeit his destrier along with his armor in a tournament defeat. Successful tournament champions could opt to retain a captured mount -- or sell it back to the owner at a handsome fee. (Or, if inclined, show pity and largess by restoring it without charge or for only a nominal fee.) Likewise, inadequate reserves of good warhorses could have an impact on the outcome of battles. One can only imagine what might have happened at Jaffa, for example, if Richard the Lionheart had disembarked with his warhorses!

While the warhorse was not a specific breed as we know today, it was the product of centuries of horse breeding in the Early Middle Ages that had systematically produced larger horses than those of previous centuries and other regions, i.e. the horses of the Greeks and Romans or contemporary Mongols and the Arabs. Significantly, medieval horses were strong enough to carry a fully armored knight, but that does not mean that they were similar to draft horses in other ways. 

Furthermore, what defined them was not size and strength alone, but rather temperament and character. For a start, in order to keep them aggressive and spirited, they were not castrated. Albertus Magnus further claims: "It is a trait of these [war]horses to delight in musical sounds, to be excited by the sounds of arms, and to gather together with other chargers. They also leap and burst into battle lines by biting and striking with their hooves." (On Animals: A Medieval Summa Zoologica, translated by Kenneth F. Kitchell Jr. and Irven Michael Resnick [Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1999]) 

Shakespeare captured this aspect of warhorse character in the opening of Henry V, Act IV, when he writes: "Steed threatens steed, in high and boastful neighs."

It is hardly surprising given how much time a knight spent training with his destrier -- and how dependent he was on the horse for his success and survival -- that strong bonds often developed between a knight and his charger. There is one recorded incident of a horse defending his unseated knight during judicial combat, preventing the opposing knight from delivering the coup de grace by repeatedly imposing his equine body between the human combatants. 

Albertus Magnus also writes:  "They sometimes care so much about their masters and grooms that, if [the latter] are killed, they grow sad and pine away, even to the point of death." The grief of knights for a good horse was also recorded in various texts. The images below of knights sleeping beside their grazing horses seem a lovely tribute to this close and trustful relationship.


Yet it was arguably the medieval workhorse that made the greater contribution to medieval society. The evolution of larger, stronger horses was critical to the agricultural revolution that greatly increased production and improved the nutritional intake of the common people dramatically. The stronger horses and tack designed to harness them to advanced plows enabled medieval peasants to not only scratch the soil but to turn it over, turning up more nutrients. The horses were faster too, plowing roughly twice as much in a day as the alternative draft animal, oxen -- much less human drawn plows. 

With more land under cultivation and greater productivity per acre, peasants could afford to leave one-third of their land fallow -- rotating crops and leaving land fallow to regenerate every third year. This further increased productivity and so diet as well. It has been argued that this agricultural revolution enabled human beings to reach their full genetic potential for size and strength for the first time in human history. Certainly, it resulted in human beings who were on average taller and stronger than people in other parts of the world in the same period.

Nor was it the plow horse alone who made such a dramatic contribution to the medieval economy. More powerful draft horses could also be employed in transport. The ability to transport heavy materials such as timber and stone was crucial to construction and ship-building. The more powerful draft horses could also be used to transport other commodities and finished products in larger quantities, thereby contributing to commerce and overall economic growth particularly inland, away from the waterways that had been the lifelines in the past. Unfortunately, the mundane, if essential work, of transport horses rarely captured the imagination or attention of medieval artists. The best I can do is a medieval "carriage."

Last but not least, draft horses also played a role in war, transporting heavy siege equipment, baggage and the wounded.  The ability to transport heavy equipment was cited by crusade historian John France as one of the West's significant advantages vis-a-vis their Saracen opponents.

 Horses play a role -- with names and personalities -- in all my crusades era novels:

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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 and the 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: