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Monday, January 30, 2023

The Administration of the Crusader States

  Every state requires an administrative apparatus to ensure the smooth functioning of the government institutions in peace and war. These are the professional bureaucrats and diplomats of the modern state. In medieval times, before the evolution of professional cadres of civil servants, states depended on a comparatively small number of officials appointed either by the crown or local lords. Below is a description of the most important state officials in the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

Crown Officers

On the one hand, the Franks brought with them concepts of government from the West. On the other hand, they inherited highly sophisticated systems of raising money and administering their new lands from their Arab and Greek predecessors. The Holy Land had, after all, been administered by the ultimate bureaucracy, the Byzantine Empire, for over 300 years. Successive Muslim regimes had been too reliant on the existing apparatus for their revenue to make major changes in the four-and-a-half centuries of their control.

At the pinnacle, the royal courts were ‘Western’ in character. Vassals did not prostrate themselves before the king, and kings did not surround themselves with slave or mercenary bodyguards. Women were present, recognized as political and legal beings with rights and a public role as queens, consorts and lords in their own right; they were not sequestered, veiled, muzzled or discounted. The crown’s most important officers were not viziers, emirs, caesars or trierarchs, but constables, seneschals, chancellors, chamberlains and marshals. The offices of the crown in the Kingdom of Jerusalem retained their functions throughout the life of the kingdom, unlike in the West, where many of these offices became hereditary yet empty titles held by an eminent baronial family but devoid of meaningful substance. Although the office holders were drawn from the highest ranks of the nobility, i.e., the barons and magnates of the realm, the offices themselves never became hereditary. The other crusader states, particularly Cyprus but also the lesser states and grand baronies had similar administrative structures and officers.

The most important crown officers in the Latin East were the constable and seneschal. The constable appears to have enjoyed somewhat more prestige in these highly militarised societies. The constable was responsible for deploying troops (unless overruled by the king) and held supreme command in the king’s absence. He also headed all court martials while on campaign, regardless of whether the offender was a knight, sergeant, squire or turcopole. He carried the royal banner in the coronation ceremony and held the king’s horse when he mounted and dismounted during the coronation.

The seneschal, more powerful than his Western counterparts, served as the kingdom’s chief financial administrator and fulfilled ceremonial functions familiar from the West. He presided over an institution known as the ‘secrète’, a body inherited from the Byzantine ‘σεκρετον’, which was found in both Jerusalem and Cyprus. The ‘secrète’ was the government department that kept records of land ownership and taxes and evolved into the central financial office responsible for revenue collection and government expenditure. The seneschal appointed, oversaw and dismissed, as necessary, the large staff of treasury baillies and clerks that ran the ‘secrète’ on a daily basis. In addition, the seneschal could convene the High Court and preside over it in the absence or incapacitation of the king. At the coronation, he carried the scepter.

The chancellor, in contrast, was far less influential than the officers cited above or his contemporaries in the West. At a time when the Western European chancelleries were developing the bureaucratic core of more centralised governments, the chancelleries in the Latin East remained comparably weak. They had no judicial function as an appellate court, for example. They did, however, serve as the central archive, where all charters of the kingdom were drafted, recorded and retained. These charters included some documents that might have been classified differently elsewhere (such as treaties with the Italian city-states). The chancellors were always leading churchmen, and the language of the royal chancelleries in both Jerusalem and Cyprus was Latin in the twelfth century and French in the thirteenth.

The chamberlain in Jerusalem was the king’s personal financial manager, responsible for the household accounts. He also administered the oaths of homage, dressed the king for his coronation and headed the coronation procession. 

The marshal was the constable’s deputy and held his office from the constable rather than directly from the king. He had particular responsibility for mercenaries, taking their oaths and ensuring they were paid. Before a battle, he inspected arms, equipment and horses. The latter was important because if a horse was killed or disabled during a campaign, the crown was responsible for replacing it, a right known as ‘restor’. During a battle, the marshal carried the royal standard and commanded the troop directly before the king, whereas the vanguard was led by the baron in whose territory a battle was fought. After a battle, the marshal took charge of captured horses and redistributed them to anyone who had lost their horse while serving the king. Anyone who disobeyed a command of the marshal lost the right to ‘restor’.


Administrative Backbone: Viscounts, Ra’is, Dragomen and More

Below these chief officers of the crown came the thirty-seven viscounts of the kingdom. Viscounties were offices, not hereditary titles, and were drawn from the lower nobility and knights. There were four royal viscounts appointed by the crown to Jerusalem, Acre, Nablus and Darum, and their duties were roughly equivalent to those of English sheriffs. They presided over the ‘cours des bourgeois’. The remaining thirty-three viscounts were appointed by the barons who had fiefs with ‘cours de bourgeois’.

On Cyprus, in addition to the ‘secrète’, the Franks adopted wholesale the institution of the ‘κομμερκιον’, or the ‘commercium’, a royal department responsible for duties on imports, exports and the sale of merchandise in public markets. During the transition to Lusignan rule, this institution was manned seamlessly by Greek bureaucrats, as was the ‘secrète’ on Cyprus. Nor was this reliance on Greek bureaucrats a temporary measure, as it continued for the duration of Lusignan rule in Cyprus. Furthermore, the ‘commercium’ appears to have been headed merely by a ‘baillie’, presumably one of these native bureaucrats, rather than a crown officer drawn from the higher nobility.

At the village level, there was a local and resident ‘Head Man’ known as the ‘ra’is’ (also rays). He was a tenant, usually with a bigger house and somewhat more profitable land, such as olive orchards or vineyards, and he spoke the same language and shared the religion of the other inhabitants of the village. Often, he was the descendent of the ‘ra’is’, who had been there before the Franks came. The ‘ra’is’ was an intermediary between the lord and his tenants and represented the interests of the community to the lord.

On the other side, the lord employed a dragoman and a scribe to represent his interests and enforce his laws in the community. The dragoman had similar duties to a deputy-sheriff or modern police chief; he was responsible for law and order, capturing outlaws and criminals and carrying out the sentence of the manorial court. The scribe, far from being a mere note-taker, was responsible for collecting local taxes, rents and fees, and recording their collection so no one would be taxed twice. These two positions were often held by Franks of the ‘sergeant’ class (free burgesses) or natives, but also by natives. Since many native Christians at this time spoke Arabic and used Arabic names, we do not know if the native inhabitants entrusted with these essential offices were Muslim, Orthodox Christians or converts to Catholicism.

Finally, in the urban centres and ports, large customs houses were staffed by a bevy of customs officials who kept records of all ships, passengers and cargoes moving in and out of the port and collected customs duties. There were customs officials at the city gates as well. Still other officials were responsible for monitoring and checking on the weights and measures used in the markets. Others oversaw the removal of refuse. Some enforced rules on the use and operation of wells, bakeries and bathhouses, while others patrolled the streets to keep order, especially at night. Here, the Frankish states relied heavily on the native population to actively participate in the support and maintenance of their rule.

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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Monday, January 23, 2023

Courts of all Kinds: The Complex Judiciary System of the Crusader States

 Arguably the most fundamental function of any state is the administration of justice. When a government fails to deliver justice, it loses its legitimacy and either becomes tyrannical or disintegrates into anarchy.

The legal system in the crusader states was striking both for its diversity and cultural sensitivity. These features undoubtedly contributed to the legitimacy and efficacy of Frankish government in the Levant.


Fundamental to any effective system of justice is acceptance and recognition of the legitimacy of the legal authorities by the population. This is notoriously difficult when the administrators of justice speak a different language, have a different faith, or follow different legal traditions from the legal system’s subjects. As a result, the imposition of law by an invading force is inherently challenging, and wise conquerors have usually been cautious about replacing local law and custom with a new system.

The Kingdom of Jerusalem faced an especially daunting challenge since, from its inception, it was a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual and religiously diverse state. The rulers of the crusader states responded to the challenge by allowing a network of partially overlapping local or “manorial” courts to continue while adding a superstructure of additional courts. These were the High Court (see above) for the feudal elite, the Court of the Bourgeois for the burgesses (sergeants), and two courts for cross-cultural civil cases: the commercial court (‘cour de la fonde’) and the maritime court (‘cour de la chaine’). In addition, the Italian communes had legal jurisdiction over their members, who were subject to the laws and customs of their home cities. Of course, clerics of any religion were tried before their respective religious courts. 

 The Lesser Courts

In all these courts, the overriding principle was judgement by one’s peers, supplemented by two corollary principles: (1) In disputes between individuals from different strata of society, the case should be tried before peers of the weaker (lower) person, and (2) In cases between individuals from various ethnic groups of the same strata, the case should be brought before the defendant’s peers.

The practical outcome of this theoretical approach was that in virtually all matters of family and religious law, the residents of the crusader states sought resolution from the religious authorities of their respective faiths. In rural areas, civil and criminal cases not involving Franks were tried before local native judges following the laws and customs predating the First Crusade.

In urban areas, however, the intermingling of peoples was too great to allow for such a simple rule, so a commercial court was created to deal with commercial cases between different ethnic and religious groups, and a maritime court handled maritime disputes regardless of the religious or national affiliation of the parties. In each, a representative of the local lord presided over the court as ‘baillie’ but did not pass judgement. Rather, the case was tried by six jurors drawn from the same class as the parties to the dispute. So, in the maritime court, for example, the jurors had to be sailors or merchants. Of these, two were Franks and four natives, a ratio that clearly favored the Franks on a national scale but may have roughly reflected the composition of the population engaged in maritime activities.

The significance of these courts, particularly for the Muslim population, was that all social and religious disputes were handled by the local imam. In matters concerning the local feudal lord, Muslims were still usually represented by a Muslim ‘ra’is’ appointed by a Muslim council of elders. Finally, in commercial disputes with non-Muslims, they could turn to the Commercial Court, where they enjoyed the same rights as all other litigants. This is a sharp contrast to the legal status of ‘dhimmis’ in Muslim states. ‘Dhimmis’ were brought before the Qadi, or Islamic judge, who did not recognise the validity of an oath given by a non-Muslim.


Court of the Bourgeois

Other than the Italians, Latin immigrants to the Holy Land who were not members of the feudal elite received justice from the thirty-seven Courts of the Bourgeois. These courts, also referred to as the Lower Courts (as opposed to the High Court), were created to address disputes involving non-noble Franks that did not fall within the jurisdiction of the commercial or maritime courts and were primarily criminal cases.

Cases before the Courts of the Bourgeois were tried before a viscount (see below) appointed by the local lord (e.g., the king in royal domains, the Prince of Galilee in Galilee, etc.) and twelve jurors. Like the baillies of the other courts, the viscount established neither the verdict nor the sentence. Instead, he was charged with ensuring due process, maintaining order in the courtroom and enforcing the sentence pronounced by the jurors. Litigants had the right to request ‘counsel’ from the court. If requested (and it was highly recommended by the medieval commentators), the court appointed one of the jurors, who thereafter did not sit in judgement of the case but became an advocate, much like a court-appointed lawyer today. Furthermore, although there was not yet a profession known as ‘lawyers’, men who gained a reputation for understanding the law were revered and repeatedly appointed as either jurors or advocates. There was, however, no such thing as the ‘prosecution’. The state had not yet assumed the role of pursuing justice and punishing crime in its own name. For a case to come to trial, an individual had to bring charges against someone else for violating the law. The Courts of the Bourgeois met more frequently than the High Court, presumably because they had more business to conduct given the larger numbers of burgesses.

Medieval Cyprus followed a similar pattern. For the most part, the Lusignans granted the Greeks and other groups judicial autonomy. One exception to this was that serfs came under the jurisdiction of their respective landlords. In practice, however, the law applied was the ‘custom of the manor’, which was usually inherited from before the Frankish invasion. Furthermore, judgement was by the defendant’s peers — other Greek serfs. As on the mainland, social and religious issues were usually solved by the clergy of the respective religious community, but in Cyprus, this authority was expanded to a de facto comprehensive judicial system for all civil cases between Greeks, i.e., the vast majority of the population. Cyprus also adopted Courts of the Bourgeois for handling commercial and criminal disputes between ethnic groups, while the Cypriot High Court dealt with all disputes between members of the feudal elite. In Cyprus, criminal courts were royal courts.


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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