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Thursday, December 19, 2019

An Economic Powerhouse: Cyprus under the Lusignans

The importance of Cyprus to the crusader states can hardly be overstated. Cyprus protected the sea lanes to the Levant. It provided a staging ground for offensive action and a place of refuge in defeat. It provided many of the lords and knights of Outremer with the rural estates so important to raising and training both men and horses for medieval warfare. Yet first and foremost it was the wealth of Cyprus, the resources it could put at the disposal of the mainland crusader states, that made it such a valuable addition to the Latin East. Today I look more closely at the components of its economy. 

Ruins of a 13th century Sugar Factory at Kolossi; sugar was an immensely lucrative cash crop throughout the Lusignan period from the start of the 13th century to the end of the 14th.
Cyprus is roughly 3,500 square miles in size, 225 miles long and 95 miles wide, with a coastline 400 miles long. At the time of Richard the Lionheart's invasion (see:, historians estimate the population was at most 100,000 strong. Of that, the vast majority of the population were Greek peasants, with a very small ruling elite of Greek aristocrats, bureaucrats, and clergy.  There were also small communities of foreigners, mostly Armenians, Maronites, Syrian Christians, and Jews. A province of only secondary or tertiary importance to the Eastern Roman Empire ruled from Constantinople, the economic base of Byzantine Cyprus was agriculture with small quantities of commodity exports. 

Richard the Lionheart's conquest leading to the establishment of the Lusignan dynasty on Cyprus two years later initially had little or no impact on the economy. The conquest neither dislocated large numbers of people nor altered the structure of land tenure nor the means of production. For the vast majority of the Cypriot rural population, the change in regime meant only that the landlords changed. Where once the landlords had been (often absentee) Greek aristocrats, after the establishment of Lusignan rule they were Latin noblemen, also often absentee, predominantly from the crusader states. These landlords now held their estates as feudal fiefs with obligations to the crown, but for the peasant little changed. Likewise, Imperial lands became part of the royal domain, but the duties and dues remained the same for the tenants. 

What changed was the explosion in commercial activity. Arguably, this would have happened even without the change in regime. The loss of the interior of the Kingdom of Jerusalem combined with the recovery of the Levantine coast for the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem meant that the Christian cities on the mainland were no longer self-sufficient in food and other products. They were dependent on imports for basic commodities, most of which Cyprus was readily able to provide. Whether this development was inevitable or not, commerce became the face of Lusignan Cyprus and contributed to dramatic economic growth that made the Lusignan period one of the most prosperous in Cypriot history.

Furthermore, the demands of trade triggered a diversification of the Cypriot economy. In addition to its traditional agricultural products of wheat, barley and pulses, Cyprus began to produce -- and export -- carobs, fish, meat, flax, cotton, onions and rice. Minor exports of saffron, nutmeg, pepper, and other spices were also recorded. Last but not least, Cyprus exported salt, a highly lucrative commodity -- so lucrative in fact that the Lusignans maintained a royal monopoly on its extraction. 

More important economically, however, was the move away from the export of raw products toward agricultural processing. As a rule, the more refined a product is, the greater the value and so the greater the profit that can be derived from its sale. Cyprus under the Lusignans produced and exported a variety of processed agricultural goods such as wine, olive oil, wax, honey, soap, cheese and above all sugar. Indeed, the production of sugar on an industrial scale became one of Cyprus' most important sources of revenue. 

Furthermore, under the Lusignans, Cyprus developed entire new industries. The manufacturing of pottery flourished at Paphos, Lemba, Lapithos, and Engomi. Textile production also developed from the mid-thirteenth century onwards including the production of samite, camlets, and silk, and the textiles were often dyed locally, increasing the value-added captured on the island. Other examples of high-value products were the production and export of icons and manuscripts. 

Notably, excavations show that Cyprus employed the cutting-edge technology of the age, notably highly sophisticated waterworks to power its mills and then reuse the water to irrigate surrounding fields. Leading crusades scholar Nicholas Coureas concludes:
The sophistication of Cypriot agriculture is best seen in the Lusignan plantations around Potamia south of Nicosia. The recently excavated system of wells, waterwheels, canals and mills irrigated the fields and processed produce of the royal estate. ("Economy" in Cyprus: Society and Culture 1191 - 1374, editors Angel Nicolaou-Konnari and Christ Schabel [London: Brill, 2005] 113.)

It is no coincidence that this splendid example of first-rate agricultural practices was found on a royal estate. Coureas estimates that as much as one-third of Cyprus' arable land was held in the royal domain. Nor did Lusignan control end there. The Lusignans were more Byzantine than Western in their tight control over the Cypriot economy, building on a system of centralized administration that they inherited from the Byzantines -- including the personnel! 

In contrast to the Kingdom of Jerusalem, the kings of Cyprus maintained a monopoly on minting coins and also established kingdom-wide standards for a variety of wares. They instituted some price controls (notably on bread) and maintained control of public highways. Perhaps most important, they granted far fewer privileges to the Italian city-states than did the crusader states on the mainland.

Last but not least, Cyprus was home to a shipbuilding industry and banking, two of the most important economic sectors of the age. The former was concentrated in Famagusta and grew up mostly after the fall of the shipbuilding centers on the Syrian coast, banking was centered in Nicosia, which became a major center for money lending. So much so, in fact, that it attracted the outrage of the Church by the introduction of a variety of shady measures designed to evade laws against usury. Coureas notes that despite the de facto high interest charged, customers were clearly prepared to borrow anyway, a strong indication of just how lucrative commercial activities on Cyprus were in the thirteenth-century. 

This positive picture is marred by the fact that Cyprus clung to Byzantine traditions in another, less admirable, way also: slavery was practiced on the island. While in the 12th and 13th century most slaves were Muslim war captives, as the influence of the Italian city-states grew so did the number of slaves procured from other regions. This was because the Italian city-states were the principle slave-traders of the age, engaged primarily in bringing slaves from northeastern Europe to the voracious slave-markets of the Arab world. After the fall of the mainland crusader states, a major slave market developed on Cyprus itself, a fact that evidently encouraged the purchase and employment of slaves directly on Cyprus particularly in labor-intensive industries such as sugarcane production and viticulture as well as for domestic work. 

In retrospect, the first two hundred years of Lusignan rule was a "golden age" for Cyprus,  characterized by independent government and economic prosperity. Neither Venetian nor Ottoman rule delivered so many benefits nor such high standards of living for the population at large  -- including peasants but excluding slaves -- as did the centuries of Lusignan rule.

 My most recent novels are all set in medieval Cyprus:

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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 comment:

  1. As fascinating and informative as always. The eye opening education never stops. Thanks for your continued efforts, Professor. Another great read.


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