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Monday, May 30, 2022

The Achilles' Heel of the Crusader States

 North of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, three other crusaders states had been established: the County of Tripoli, the Principality of Antioch and the County of Edessa. The later two entities proved extremely vulnerable and Edessa would be the first of the crusader states to fall.


The crusader presence in Edessa was not the outcome of conquest. Baldwin of Boulogne had been invited by a local warlord and arrived in Edessa with just 60 knights. Edessa was an ancient and wealthy city that at the time of the First Crusede rivaled Antioch and Aleppo in importance. When in 1098 the First Crusade reached northern Syria, Edessa was in the hands of a Greek Christian warlord, the most recent “strongman” in a long line of short-lived warlords, who came to power by murder or popular acclaim ― only to lose favor rapidly and themselves be murdered or flee. Thoros fearing the fate of his predecessors if he could not fight off the ever present Turkish threat, sought help from the most recent military force to arrive on the scene: the crusaders. MacEvitt suggests convincingly that Thoros was making the same mistake that the Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Comnenus had made, namely, of conflating crusaders with Frankish/Norman mercenaries. Thoros wanted the evidently proven military man Baldwin of Boulogne to come fight his battles for him; he never really thought he was inviting in a successor.
Baldwin, however, was not a mercenary. He rejected mere material gifts such as gold, silver and horses, in a bid for something more important still: power and control. When Thoros refused, Baldwin threatened to leave, and “the people” (by which one presumes the chroniclers mean the elites) insisted that Thoros give way. Thoros formally adopted Baldwin in a ceremony (telling) using Armenian relics and customs. Baldwin’s career would certainly have been as short-lived and as forgettable as that of the previous half-dozen “rulers” of Edessa, had he not proved astonishingly adept at building alliances with surrounding warlords, nobles and elites. That process started with the simple expedient of leaving the Armenian administration of the city undisturbed. Baldwin also adopted Armenian symbols and rituals, and he rapidly married into the Armenian aristocracy as well.  
When Baldwin of Boulogne was called away to Jerusalem to take up his elder brother’s mantle, he invited his cousin Baldwin de Bourcq to succeed him as ruler of Edessa. Baldwin II (as he was to be known in both Edessa and Jerusalem) was quick to take the opportunity, and his eighteen-year rule in Edessa truly established Frankish control over Edessa.
However, in 1112, the Principality of Antioch passed to a minor heir still resident in the West, and the regency was given to Roger of Solerno, the brother-in-law of King Baldwin II.  Antioch had been under sustain attack from the Seljuks since its inception, with incursions of greater or lesser strength recorded almost yearly. Subscribing to the philosophy that the ‘best defense is a good offense,’ Roger attacked at the first opportunity. His success in capturing a number of key cities around Aleppo by 1119, however, provoked two powerful Seljuk leaders, Tughtigin of Damascus and Il-Ghazi the ruler of Mardin, to form an alliance aimed at his destruction. 
The two Seljuk leaders fielded a combined army estimated at 40,000 men. In response, Roger called up all his own troops, including many native Armenians, and sent word to Jerusalem that he was under threat. Thinking his own force of 700 knights, 500 turcopoles and 3,000 to 10,000 infantry, was sufficient, however, he opted not to await reinforcements from Jerusalem. On 28 June 1119, Roger confronted his enemies only to suffer a devastating defeat. The Frankish casualties were so high that the battle has gone down in history simply as ‘the Field of Blood.’ Among the dead were Roger himself and virtually all his barons. In addition, Il-Ghazi slaughtered 500 prisoners the day after the battle, increasing Frankish losses. Il-Ghazi then began laying waste to the entire area with impunity; only the city of Antioch, with its massive walls and 400 towers, was comparatively safe. 
King Baldwin hurried north to try to stabilize the situation. He personally assumed the regency of the principality for the nine-year-old prince and prepared to confront Il-Ghazi with troops from the remaining crusader states. This unified Frankish force, however, failed to deliver a decisive knock-out blow. Although il-Ghazi became more circumspect, his army was still intact when Baldwin returned to Jerusalem, leaving the defense of Antioch in the hands of the neighbouring Count of Edessa. 
Three years later, Joscelyn of Edessa blundered into a Saracen ambush and was taken captive along with other leading nobles, leaving both Edessa and Antioch in a precarious situation. Baldwin II again rushed north to defend the flank of his kingdom, only to promptly be taken captive himself on 18 April 1123. It was more than a year before he could negotiate a ransom. After his release, he remained pre-occupied with the insecurity of the northern crusader states, although his absence from his own kingdom cause growing resentment among the barons of Jerusalem. Baldwin II ended up spending roughly 40 per cent of his reign in Antioch and Edessa rather than Jerusalem — without solving the problems there.
The north remained the Achilles heel of the crusader kingdoms for two reasons. First, the Byzantines had never been reconciled to the loss of Antioch, which had been an important part of their empire until only twelve years before the crusader capture of the city. This culminated in a Byzantine attempt to seize the city by force in 1138. The then Prince of Antioch, Raymond of Poitiers, only averted disaster by doing homage to Constantinople for Antioch and agreeing to hold the city as a vassal rather than an independent ruler. Second and more dangerous, the north was threatened by the increasingly powerful Seljuk ruler Imad al-Din Zengi of Mosul.
Zengi was an exceptionally brutal and ambitious ruler who spent most of his career attacking his fellow Muslims, which perhaps explains why Muslim chroniclers readily describe him as ruthless and merciless. He seized Aleppo in 1128, took Homs in 1138 and repeatedly laid siege to Damascus. To save himself from Zengi, the Sultan of Damascus turned to the Franks for support, and the Franks obliged. Yet while this tactical alliance between the Jerusalem and Damascus prevented the latter’s fall to Zengi, it gave him an excuse (if he needed one) to attack the Franks. 
In 1144, taking advantage of Joscelyn II’s temporary absence, Zengi assaulted Edessa. His army broke into the city on Christmas Eve and took the citadel two days later. After the death of Zengi in September 1146, Count Joscelyn briefly retook his city, only to be trapped between the citadel, still in Seljuk hands, and a new army brought up by Zengi’s son Nur al-Din. The result was a massacre of appalling proportions. Significantly, according to a contemporary Syrian Christian account, those who fell into the hands of the Seljuks alive were not merely killed but humiliated — forced to strip naked — and then tortured before being killed. This was not simply the application of the ‘rules of war,’ but a vindictive and cruel act, shocking to both Muslim and Christian contemporaries. Altogether 30,000 Christians lost their lives in the Seljuk capture of Edessa, while another 16,000 ended in slavery. Furthermore, the bodies of the slain were left to rot, the wells poisoned, the defenses destroyed, the city abandoned altogether. This tactic of not just killing and carrying off the inhabitants but rendering a city indefensible and uninhabitable for the foreseeable future foreshadows the tactics of the Mamluks more than a century later. Yet it was exceptional and hugely shocking at this point in time.

 This entry is partially based on an excerpt from Dr. Schrader's comprehensive study of the crusader states.


Dr. Helena P. Schrader is also the author of six books set in the Holy Land in the Era of the Crusades.


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Monday, May 23, 2022

Baldwin II -- An Able but Unlucky King

At Baldwin de Boulogne’s death the throne of Jerusalem passed to Baldwin de Bourcq. The latter was crowned alongside his Armenian wife Morphia on Christmas Day 1118 at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem as Baldwin II.  Baldwin was undoubtedly an able king, but not always a lucky one. His misfortune included being taken captive and held for ransom.


Nevertheless, it was during Baldwin II’s reign that the vital coastal city of Tyre surrendered to the Franks after a five-month siege aided by a large Venetian fleet. The latter had first intercepted and destroyed the Fatimid navy at sea. The Muslim population of Tyre was granted the right to withdraw with their moveable possessions, but the Venetians ran riot and, against the terms of the surrender, engaged in acts of violence. Baldwin II also successfully defeated a coalition of Turkish forces at the Battle of Azaz on 11 June 1125.

Equally significant, during Baldwin II’s reign the Franks began to systematically build castles of their own rather than merely occupying existing fortification as they had done up to this point. Counter-intuitively, most of these castles were built in the parts of the kingdom that were already secure. They were built not in areas threatened by Muslim raids and incursions, but rather in regions of significant agricultural production and near concentrations of Christian inhabitants or important Christian shrines and pilgrim destinations. The obvious conclusion from this pattern of building was that these castles were not part of a defensive perimeter nor primarily defensive in character at all. Rather, these castles were an expression of growing administrative sophistication and control. The exception to this rule was the great castle of Montreal. This was built as an intimidating stronghold controlling the lands beyond the Jordan (the Barony of Transjordan) and threatening — or at least watching — the lines of communication between Egypt and Damascus.

Baldwin II was also responsible for the first codification of laws for the kingdom at an ad hoc ‘Council’ at Nablus, attended by both secular and ecclesiastical lords. He continued his predecessor’s policy of encouraging settlement, particularly appealing to the great monastic orders to establish houses in his kingdom. The importance of monastic presence was that the religious orders enjoyed huge patronage in the west and brought these enormous financial resources to bear when they established houses in the East. In short, the religious orders could tap the resources needed to rebuild and renovate the Christian churches and convents left in ruins by four hundred years of Muslim occupation. The religious orders of this period were also known for the sophistication of their administration and for fostering the introduction of modern agricultural techniques. Monasteries across Europe were bringing marginal land under cultivation and increasing yields through the construction of expensive infrastructure such as terracing, water mills, and irrigation.

Although we know little about the details, under Baldwin II the Kingdom of Jerusalem evolved efficient administrative, financial and legal structures. These were sufficiently robust to function even in the absence of the king. Taxes and duties were collected regularly, properly recorded and allocated to important building programs and the vitally important military operations. The construction of castles and cathedrals required quarries, roads, harbors, and other forms of infrastructure, which suggests that the economic base of the country was growing rapidly. Likewise, the population and the number of pilgrims was evidently increasing rapidly.

These factors combined enabled Baldwin II to take the offensive against two of the most important Seljuk power centers: Aleppo (in 1124) and Damascus (1129). The latter siege particularly was a major operation that appears to have been defeated more by bad weather than by enemy action. Furthermore, the Sultan was sufficiently unsettled by the Frankish threat to agree to an annual tribute of 20,000 dinars to be left in peace. This latter point underlines the degree to which the Seljuks as well as the Fatimids viewed the Franks as dangerous opponents. At his death on 21 August 1131, Baldwin II left behind a kingdom stronger than ever. Yet his reign was over-shadowed by severe set-backs in the northern Crusader states, which I will look at in my next entry.

 This entry is largely an excerpt from Dr. Schrader's comprehensive study of the crusader states.


Dr. Helena P. Schrader is also the author of six books set in the Holy Land in the Era of the Crusades.


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Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Launch of The Holy Land in the Era of the Crusades: Kingdoms at the Crossroads of Civilizations by Helena P. Schrader.

 Launch of The Holy Land in the Era of the Crusades: Kingdoms at the Crossroads of Civilizations by Helena P. Schrader.

Monday, May 16, 2022

Jerusalem becomes a Kingdom

 Barely a year after the capture of Jerusalem by the First Crusade, the man elected by the crusade leadership to remain behind and defend it was dead. Godfrey was succeeded by his elder brother, Baldwin of Boulogne, a man of a decidedly different character -- but not without his virtues as his record would show.


Baldwin, for a start, was not prepared to be a mere ‘Protector of the Holy Sepulcher;’ he wanted a crown — of gold. On Christmas Day 1100, Daimbert crowned Baldwin King of Jerusalem in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and with this act the Kingdom of Jerusalem came into being. Baldwin’s new kingdom, however, still consisted only of Jerusalem and its hinterland, including Bethlehem, along with a narrow, insecure corridor to the coast at Jaffa. It also still had only about 300 knights and at most 2,000 Frankish soldiers to defend it.

When Baldwin I died eighteen years later, he bequeathed a kingdom that stretched across the Jordan and from Beirut to Gaza, with only Tyre and Ascalon still in Muslim hands. In the north it bordered not a Muslim state, but the newly established crusader county of Tripoli. Much of this expansion was made possible by the support of the Italian maritime powers, who repeatedly sent fleets to the Eastern Mediterranean which aided in the capture of the coastal cities in exchange for receiving trading privileges in the newly acquired territories. 

The Kingdom of Jerusalem captured Arsuf and Caesarea in 1101 and Tortosa and Jubail in 1102, all with Genoese support. Two years later the Genoese enabled Baldwin to take the vitally important coastal city of Acre. The following year the siege of Tripoli commenced with Genoese and Provencal maritime support; the city fell four years later (1109). Both the Pisans and Genoese assisted in the capture of Beirut in 1110, while Sidon fell to King Baldwin I aided by a Norwegian fleet under the command of King Sigurd. Notably, at Arsuf, Acre, and Tripoli, the cities surrendered on terms and the Saracen inhabitants were allowed to withdraw unmolested. Meanwhile, Galilee and Samaria were conquered and occupied by the Franks, pushing the borders of Frankish control across the River Jordan and south along the western shore of the Dead Sea.

Just as important as these offensive victories, however, were King Baldwin’s successful defense of his kingdom from tenacious attempts by Saracen powers to destroy it. The Egyptians sent a second army to regain Jerusalem in September 1101. At Ramla on 7 September, despite mustering only 260 knights and less than 1,000 infantry, Baldwin was able to put the Egyptians to flight — at the cost of eighty knights and many more infantry. The following year Baldwin again defeated the Egyptians, this time at Jaffa in May. Almost simultaneously, on 14 April, the Count of Toulouse routed a Seljuk army from Homs and Damascus near Tortosa, while tenaciously seeking to establish what would become the County of Tripoli. When in 1105 the Fatimids sent a fourth army to drive the Franks out of Jerusalem, Baldwin was able to meet them with a force of 500 knights and 2,000 infantry supported for the first time by mounted archers (i.e. native cavalry) in unspecified numbers. With this force, Baldwin decisively defeated the Egyptians on 27 August 1105 in what became known as the 2nd Battle of Ramla. A Frankish defeat at any of these battles would almost certainly have ended in the obliteration of the still nascent Kingdom of Jerusalem.

How then were these victories and the related expansion possible? Where did the replacement for the dead of the First Battle of Ramla come from? How could Baldwin field almost twice as many knights in 1105 as in 1101?

The key was settlement. Baldwin actively encouraged Christian settlement in any territory he could wrest from Muslim control. Significantly, this included inviting Syrian Christians to relocate from Muslim-controlled to Christian-controlled territory as well as welcoming Christian settlers from Western Europe. Vitally important to the viability of the kingdom, Baldwin established baronies which could be parceled out as fiefs to maintain a feudal army of knights and sergeants. Even lands granted to, for example the canons of the Holy Sepulchre, were fiefs owing sergeants to the army of the king. What this means is that the land was tilled by free tenants who owed feudal service as sergeants, while the profits of the agricultural activity was split between the tenant and the ecclesiastical landlord.

It was also during Baldwin I’s reign that both the Knights Templar and the Knights Hospitaller were established in the Kingdom of Jerusalem. At the time of Baldwin’s death in 1118, both institutions were still too tiny to play a significant role in the defense of the realm, but seeds had been planted that would soon bear extremely valuable military fruit.

Baldwin I died on 2 April 1118 without issue. He left behind a kingdom, not just a city, that was economically viable due to the conquest of both coastal ports and inland areas. It was a kingdom with sufficient land to create fiefs and to assure fundamental self-sufficiency in foodstuffs such as grains, wine and oil. Nevertheless, the situation was still precarious. Letters to the West from this period stress that civilians (particularly unarmed clerics) were afraid to travel between cities without an escort. Many pilgrims still fell victim to Saracen ambushes. This was the background against which the Knights Templar were founded as a band of knights dedicated to the protection of pilgrims. The Israeli historian Ronnie Ellenblum characterizes this as a period in which the ‘threat was continuous,’ adding the crucial point ‘and mutual.’[i] The crusader kingdom-in-the-making was both vulnerable and aggressive. The smaller, Saracen coastal city-states and inland garrisons felt as threatened and unsettled by Frankish presence as the Franks felt about the larger Muslim powers in Aleppo, Damascus and Cairo.

[i] Ellenblum, Ronnie. Crusader Castles and Modern Histories. [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007] 151.

This entry is an excerpt from Dr. Schrader's comprehensive study of the crusader states.

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is also the author of six books set in the Holy Land in the Era of the Crusades.


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