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Wednesday, September 23, 2020

The Forgotten Component in Negotiations: Captives

In kingdoms without borders, negotiations often had more to do with people than places. A short look at the usually forgotten component of captives in peace settlements in the era of the crusades.

War in Western Europe in the era of the crusades was largely about control of cities and castles. These were the assets that generated income on the one hand and enabled power projection on the other. While the garrisons and inhabitants of castles and cities might be killed during a siege or an assault, there are very few instances where entire populations were displaced. Negotiations for surrender were usually about accepting the sovereignty (doing homage and paying taxes) to the victor, not about avoiding slaughter. Certainly, the defeated in the intra-Christian wars of the High Middle Ages never faced the prospect of slavery because the enslavement of fellow Christians was condemned by the Church and largely disappeared by the end of the ninth century, certainly by the eleventh.

In the Middle East, in contrast, both Arab and Turkish societies were built on slavery. The economy could not function without slaves, and nor could their military because slave-soldiers were an indispensable component of their armies. Slaves made up the most reliable and elite units. These were composed of slaves, captured or purchased as children, and raised to fanatical loyalty while developing military skills to the highest standards. In short, neither the Arab nor the Turkish states of this period could function without slaves. Furthermore, the "consumption" of slaves was enormous, leading to a voracious, indeed apparently insatiable, demand for slaves. To the shame of the Italian commercial states, these played a key role in supplying the Middle Eastern slave markets with human beings captured in the pagan north. Yet, while this market was lucrative, it was not the main source of slaves to the Muslim world. Conquest was.

To be sure, the custom of enslaving the vanquished is as old as the Iliad. The custom had, however, died out in the West under the influence of Christianity. Islam, in contrast, raised the custom to a new heights because it was sanctified by Mohammed's treatment of his enemies and enshrined in the Quran (3:106) that clothed the enslavement of non-Muslim peoples in righteousness and religious justification. Indeed, there is ample evidence that many raids were instigated not to conquer or destroy the economic base of the enemy, but simply to take captives. "During the eighth, ninth and tenth centuries, such razzias depopulated Sardinia, Sicily, the coasts of Italy and southern France, and in the eastern Mediterranean, the Cyclades, the regions of Athos, Euboea and along the Greek coast."(1)

By the era of the crusades, such large-scale raiding was a thing of the past, but the practice remained at the local level. What this meant in practice is that throughout the crusades era, the Franks and their Orthodox Christian allies faced slavery every time they were taken captive whether in battle, a siege, or a raid. The highest noblemen were the only exception. They could expect to be held for ransom rather than sold into slavery, and it is their fate about which we hear the most. 
Yet they were the exception and the tip of the iceberg. For every nobleman held captive for ransom there were scores of knights, hundreds of turcopoles and sergeants, and thousands of peasants, women and children. The latter particularly were often the victims of small-scale raiding, a nearly perpetual phenomenon in this period. The victims of it were the rural population, a class unable to pay ransoms and so rarely given that option. 

As a result, at any one time, thousands of Christians, former subjects of the Frankish kings and princes, were held in captivity by Muslim enemies of the Franks. Some of these were Frankish settlers; more of them were native Christians. 
Surprisingly, they were not forgotten. 
On the contrary, in truce after truce, the Franks remembered their captive subjects. The return of captives -- not just noble or knightly captives -- was a component part of negotiations with the enemy. There are recorded incidents when the Franks leveraged a Muslim desire for peace to secure the release of thousands of captives.(2) In one instance -- viewed as an example of Frankish "arrogance" --  the Arab chronicler Ibn al-Athir records:
The Franks sent to review those male and female slaves of their people who had been taken from all the Christian lands, and bade them choose whether they would stay with their lords or return to their homelands. Anyone who preferred to stay was left, and anyone who wanted to go home went there.
This clearly refers to women which highlights the fact that such agreements were not confined to the release of fighting men. Furthermore, this particular agreement was extremely comprehensive as it applied to the entire city of Damascus. Again, thousands of captives must have benefited from the negotiated settlement. 

Yet such agreements were only possible if the Franks were negotiating from strength. As a result, many captives languished for years in slavery, before a change in fortune enabled the Franks to extract concessions from their opponents. The fact that some captives waited a long time for release does not diminish their importance. On the contrary, the fact that even after years, relatives, friends and comrades were determined to obtain the release of those they loved while Frankish negotiators -- always members of the Frankish elite -- recognized and respected this is to the credit of the Franks. 

Too many historians appear to overlook the importance of the return of captives when condemning Richard the Lionheart's actions at Acre. The Lyon Continuation of William of Tyre notes explicitly that when Saladin reneged on his agreement to meet the terms fo the surrender agreement for Acre, 
"there was great sorrow among the Christians; many tears were shed that day, and all the men of the host were greatly troubled. When King Richard saw the people weeping and lamenting... he had great pity on them and wanted to calm those in such great distress."(3)
People were hardly weeping because Richard and Philip didn't get the money they demanded. They may have been upset that the True Cross had not been returned, but it hardly seems to justify this degree of grief described, particularly since there was no comparable grief reported during later negotiations that also failed to yield the captured relic. The far more logical explanation of this grief was that the terms of surrender had included the return of a captive for each member of the garrison held hostage. Many of the men in Richard's army were hoping to see friends or family again. It was that loss -- the disappointment combined with fear that they might never be reunited with loved ones -- that caused so much grief. Whether Richard's response was the appropriate one or not, we should not ignore the fact that he was under intense pressure from his own men. The chronicle makes clear that they believed they been denied their loved ones because their leaders had been duped. 

The fate of captives is a major theme in: 

1) Ye'or, Bat. The Decline of Eastern Christianity under Islam. Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2009, 50.

2) Holt, P.M., The Crusader States and their Neighbours. Pearson Longman, 2004, 64.

3) Edbury, Peter (translator). The Conquest of Jerusalem and the Third Crusade. Ashgate (Crusades Text in Translation), 108.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

"I have never seen one!" Borders in the Era of the Crusades

In the era of the crusades, there were no border posts with customs agents. There were no mapping agencies or official maps based on engineering surveys. 
There certainly was no GPS.
Where kingdoms met the sea they ended. Sometimes rivers or other geographical characteristics provided clear and easily recognizable borders. Yet in the vast landmass of Anatolia and Syria such features were rare. 
So how were borders defined and understood in the crusader states? 
And what impact does this have on our understanding of them?

The fundamental fact about medieval borders is that they were less a matter of location than of control. As in Ancient Sparta, political borders were not defined by geography but rather by -- as the Spartans put it -- "the reach of their spears." That is, by the ability of a political power to exert control over a particular territory.

Yet that is only half the equation. Since no state or ruler in the Middle Ages had the capacity to control every cubic yard of territory claimed, the best they could hope for was the submission of the population. Where there were no inhabitants, the land effectively belonged to no man -- no matter who laid claim to it. This was particularly true of the forests of northeast Europe in this period -- and the deserts of the Middle East.

In inhabited areas, in contrast, the political affiliation of any region was defined not so much by geography as by psychology, that is: by whether the inhabitants of a particular region identified themselves as the subjects of one ruler or another. At a simplistic level, a man was the subject of the government to whom he paid his taxes. 

Yet in an era where taxes were largely local, i.e. to a feudal landlord, a guild, a city administration, even that was not necessarily a clear indication of identity with a more centralized state/power. Rural populations, in particular, tended to be focused on the immediate vicinity. Peasant mobility was limited by profession, even in the absence of serfdom, and intermarriage within villages or between neighboring villages was the norm. These patterns created over-lapping networks of loyalties to the family, the locality, and the local lord rather than to distant authorities. After all, under feudalism, a man legally owed fealty to his direct overlord not to the crown. In times of conflict, men usually held to their communities, their families and to their lords, even if that meant coming in conflict with a higher feudal authority or the crown itself.

In the Holy land, both the Franks and the Seljuks were outsiders and the loyalty of some local communities to these alien elites was weak at best. Yet, unlike in most of Western Europe, the population too was ethnically and religiously diverse. Rather than sharing ethnic, linguistic and religious identities with their neighbors, villages in Palestine and Syria were fragmented and diverse. In short, the close bonds that usually tied local communities together did not exist to the same degree; neighbors might identify more with different authorities or might feel closer to someone more distant than the family next-door.

Problematic was the fact that the intermingling of Christian and Muslim populations in some regions was so complete that it was not always possible to draw lines based on religious affiliation. Furthermore, if each side had partisans in each village, both sides felt 'entitled' to claiming them -- and initially did. Soon, however, both parties recognized that in some regions the raids and counter-raids destroyed the wealth -- and food supplies -- of both sides. 

As a result, in the early twelfth century, Franks and Saracens evolved the practice of revenue sharing in certain border regions. This meant, rather than even attempting to draw a border, the parties agreed to first collect the revenues from everyone -- and then divide them based on an agreed formula. The rationale for the ratio determining how much revenue went to each party varied from treaty to treaty and presumably reflected the relative proportion of Christian versus Muslim inhabitants in the specific locales covered by the treaties.

And yet, assuming that the loyalties of the native population inherently followed religious lines, while convenient and comprehensible, is an over-simplification. In the entire history of the crusader states, there is not a single instance of revolt or uprisings on the part of the local population against the Franks -- despite the fact that a large minority was Muslim, and a majority was not Latin. So loyalty and identification with the Franks evolved even among non-Christians.

Traditionally, this is explained by indifference on the part of a native population used to exploitation by a carrousel of invaders from Alexander the Great onwards. Another explanation is the lower levels of taxation and higher standards of justice under the Franks remarked upon by Ibn Jubayr. However, a third explanation might be that the fluid borders followed the psychological divide between the locals inclined to identify with the Franks and those more inclined to identify with the Seljuks. That is, that the Franks were only able to exert lasting control over regions in which the population -- for whatever reason -- was willing to recognize Frankish authority as legitimate. Again, while there may have been a high correlation between accepting Frankish rule and religion, but it would be wrong to assume this was absolute. Jews, Samaritans and some Muslims, particularly Shia Muslims, may also have preferred Frankish to Seljuk rule for their own reasons.  

Nor should the impact of individual personalities be overlooked. In one recorded incident from 1156, the lord of Nablus came in conflict with an imam because the latter's sermons attracted too many peasants, who thereby did not work their fields. The imam responded by emigrating and persuading a number families to follow him. Although there are serious reasons to doubt the veracity of this account (the author claims the lord with whom he clashed as "Baldwin d'Ibelin" -- a man who never held Nablus), it seems plausible that the actions of individuals could cause both immigration and emigration as well as inspire varying levels of loyalty. 

The bottom line is that borders were fluid and more psychological than physical.  

All my novels set in the crusader state attempt to reflect this reality.