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Monday, December 5, 2022

The Italian Communes in the Crusader States

The Italian maritime powers played a critical role in establishing Frankish rule over the coastal cities of the Levant and contributed materially to the viability of the crusader states. In exchange for their help, these quintessentially commercial states obtained huge economic concessions. The Italian merchant states evinced the rapaciousness so often attributed to all crusaders, and they consistently placed commercial advantage above the interests of both crusading and the crusader states.

As early as 1000, just one year after the capture of Jerusalem, the Venetians obtained a treaty that set a pattern for all future agreements with the maritime cities. This granted to Venice a church, market and one-third of the booty of any city captured by the Franks if captured in the period during which their fleet was present — whether the Venetians participated or not. By 1124, the Venetians had negotiated a church, street, square and oven in every royal and baronial city in the kingdom, as well as the privilege to try all lawsuits involving Venetian citizens before Venetian courts. They had also obtained control of one-third of the cities of Tyre and Ascalon and were exempt from all taxes.

Despite these grandiose privileges and rights, the Italian presence in the early years of the Latin East amounted to little more than trading outposts with communal lodgings and warehouses. The so-called ‘palazzos’ of the Italian merchant communes consisted of warehouse and shop space on the ground floor (that individual merchants could rent out by the square foot), and lodgings on the upper floors, rented out by the week or month. In between were the offices, courts and reception rooms for the commune’s administrative bodies. Rather than grand residences, the ‘palazzos’ were the practical consolidation of functional space needed by a transient population of merchants, agents, sea-captains and sailors. These men came only briefly to conduct business and returned ‘home’ ― to Pisa, Genoa or Venice ― as soon as possible. Their families remained in the home city, and in the ‘off-season’, the Italian quarters were practically deserted.

Only gradually did some of the less prominent members of this essentially transient community start to linger in the East. Only very exceptionally, such as in the case of the Embriachi family of Genoa, did prominent, aristocratic families establish a permanent presence in Outremer. Yet, men of lesser standing at home sometimes found it advantageous to settle, marry and acquire personal property in Outremer. As a result, by the end of the thirteenth century, there were some members of the Italian communes who were third or fourth-generation residents of Outremer. Despite this fact, they remained legally and emotionally the subjects of their home cities rather than the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

The Italians failed to develop any strong emotional tie to the cause of crusading or the Holy Land, being as happy to attack Christian cities (e.g. Zara and Constantinople) or obtain trading privileges in Muslim ones (e.g. Alexandria). Their primary concern was ‘dominating the lines of communication and commerce between the eastern shores of the Mediterranean and Europe’.[i] This set them apart from the other residents, both native and immigrant. Certainly, the Italian communes retained their aloofness from the rest of crusader society. The right to their own courts was fiercely defended, as were their other privileges, particularly immunity from royal taxes and service. They remained enclaves of foreigners, rather like diplomatic or colonial enclaves in later centuries, living by their own laws, speaking their native language — and retaining their rivalries. 

[i] See note 16, Prawer, ‘Social Classes in the Crusader States’, 174.

The bulk of 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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