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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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