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Monday, April 24, 2023

The Economy of the Crusader States: Industry and Manufacturing

The industrial sector in the crusader states was less well-developed than tourism, but it was far from insignificant. Agro-processing played an important role, while other industries grew out of the tourist trade and the region’s religious significance. Many of these industries — at least those we know about today — entailed the production of high-margin luxury products.

The revival of agriculture in the Levant led to a revival in agro-processing as well, and the most crucial agro-industry of the crusader kingdoms was a relatively new development: sugar. Prior to the arrival of the Franks, preparation of a primitive sweetener from sugar cane was conducted only at the household level. It was the Franks who transformed sugar production into an extensive and highly lucrative industry. The driving force behind this development may have been the importance of sugar as an ingredient for the medicines of this period. Both the Hospitallers and Teutonic Knights were active producing and refining sugar not for export but for use in their hospitals.

Sugar production was capital intensive. It required investment in both plantation-style production and refining. Highly sophisticated irrigation networks were needed that could both feed and starve specific fields successively to ensure a constant and regulated flow of ripe sugar to water-powered factories. Because sugar cannot be transported far after harvesting without losing its sweetness, the Franks built numerous factories close to the cane fields along the coast and in the Jordan Valley. When the Franks took control of Cyprus, they introduced large-scale sugar manufacturing to Cyprus. In both Jerusalem and Cyprus, the investment paid off handsomely. The West had an insatiable demand for this luxury product, and profit margins were high, making sugar one of the most profitable industries of the crusader states.

Another agro-based industry was wine. Wine production was widespread across the crusader states from Antioch and Latakia down the entire coast, in the region around Jerusalem, and Cyprus. Written records describe pruning methods facilitating the production of three crop yields from a single vine per year. Travellers to the Holy Land in this period attest to the high quality of the wines produced in the crusader states, particularly around Bethlehem. Cypriot wines were even more coveted.

Olive-oil manufacturing is another ancient Near East industry that continued and intensified under the Franks. Despite nearly ubiquitous oil production throughout the crusader states, most was consumed domestically rather than exported. This may be, in part, because oil was an essential ingredient of a more lucrative export, namely soap. Soap was known to have been produced in Tripoli, Nablus and Acre on the mainland and in Paphos in Cyprus. Soap is a major product of Nablus until this day.

Another cluster of agro-industries was based on livestock, namely tanning and the production of leather goods. Once tanned, the leather could be fashioned into a variety of products. These were popular because leather was one of the few comparatively flexible waterproof materials available in this era. For example, leather was used for footwear (shoes and boots), gloves, bags and purses, cloaks, saddles and other tack, but also for book covers and parchment.

Pottery has been produced across the Eastern Mediterranean since prehistoric times. In the Crusades era, high-quality pottery was produced in the Byzantine Empire and in Syria and Egypt. While higher quality wares were imported (Chinese porcelain has been recorded among the imports), the domestic pottery production in the mainland crusader states served everyday purposes and was a ‘consumable’ of comparatively low value. These objects were made of buff or red-coloured clay, and some were decorated with red or brown designs on a pale background. One popular variant of cooking pots and pans was glazed on the inside to prevent food from sticking, the medieval equivalent of Teflon. The Franks introduced pottery production to Cyprus, and from 1220 onwards, kilns operated in Paphos, Lapithos and near Famagusta. Over time, the quality of Cypriot pottery increased and developed distinctive characteristics. Cypriot pottery was glazed and adopted motifs and images drawn from the romances of the period.

Glass manufacturing is another ancient industry that continued under the Franks. Jewish sources indicate that much glass manufacturing was in Jewish hands, but there is no indication that the Jews had a monopoly on this lucrative business. Contemporary accounts testify to the high quality of crusader-era glass, which was extremely transparent.

Window glass was either round panes or plate glass and could be clear or stained. Fragments of dark and light purple, blue, turquoise, dark and light green, yellow and brown stained glass have been found. Colourless glass painted with decoration has also been recovered.

Glass was blown to create various vessels, including lamps, bottles, bowls, jars, cups and goblets. Some of the lamps were blue or greenish blue, and some had glass handles of a different colour. Bottles with long necks and a decorated, flaring rim appear to have been quite popular with the Franks, possibly for perfume. Cups, beakers and goblets, all for drinking wine, were also produced in significant numbers, some in light-blue and light-green glass. Beirut, on the other hand, was famous for its ruby-red glass.

Glass in this period might also be etched or cut to create decorations. Some vessels were inscribed with names, sayings, warnings or blessings. Other forms of decoration were ‘prunting’, small protrusions of glass applied to the exterior surface that presumably made it easier to hold — perhaps for chilled wines and sherbets which caused exterior water condensation in hot weather. More elaborate and expensive decoration consisted of enamel decorations on the finished glass object. The production of enameled glass was recorded in Acre. The most common decorations popular with the Franks were heraldic devices, flowers and plants, animals, birds and mythological beasts.

Textile production was both diverse and plentiful. Despite its fragility, thousands of textile fragments from the crusader era have been discovered, including silk, cotton, linen, felt and wool, as well as cloth woven from goat and camel hair. Many fragments are composed of hybrid fabrics, i.e., material woven together from a warp of one kind of yarn and weft of another, e.g., silk woven with wool, linen or cotton. Written sources also refer to taffeta, buckram and satin as well.

There is documentary evidence that some 4,000 silk weavers settled and worked in the County of Tripoli. Other hubs of silk weaving were Tyre, Gaza and Ascalon. Tyre was famous for its white silk. Beirut exported silk and cotton textiles, and cotton was grown around Acre, Tiberias and Ramla, presumably for use in local manufacturing. The dyeing industry was closely associated with the textile industry and was mainly in Jewish hands.

In Cyprus, sources note the production of samite and camlets for export to both east and west. Perhaps most intriguing of all are references to a hybrid fabric produced by weaving silk with strands of gold. This valuable luxury good was known as ‘siqlatin’, that is ‘silk-Latin’ — presumably because it was manufactured for Latin Christian (Frankish) customers or because it was produced in the Latin (crusader) states.

Except for iron mines near Beirut, the Kingdom of Jerusalem did not have significant metal deposits. Nevertheless, metalworking was an important domestic industry based on imports of raw material from outside the region. It ranged from essential, utilitarian tools to weapons and works of art. A unique but nevertheless low-grade form of metalwork common in the Kingdom of Jerusalem was the production of cheap amulets and trinkets as souvenirs for pilgrims and ampullae to collect holy water and holy oil as keepsakes.

On the other hand, examples of high-quality metalwork from the Kingdom of Jerusalem include brass bowls and plates with detailed engravings, as well as organ pipes and church bells found in Bethlehem. More common, however, were religious souvenirs for the wealthiest class of pilgrims: the nobility and princes of the church. These often took the form of reliquaries in gold and silver, often studded with jewels or embellished with enamel. The gold and silversmiths of the crusader states also produced processional crosses and bishop’s crosiers.

In the thirteenth century, Acre became a centre for producing and exporting high-quality composite crossbows. The design of these bows came from the Muslim East, but the Muslim ban against the export of weapons to non-Muslims severely inhibited direct exports to the Latin East, much less Western Europe. However, the necessary raw materials for these effective weapons (glue and horn) could be imported by the Latin East from Damascus, a major weapons manufacturing centre. This enabled Acre’s weapons workshops to develop a near-monopoly on the production of these weapons.

An export even more unique or representative of the Kingdoms of Jerusalem and Cyprus were icons. Icons had a long tradition in Orthodox Christianity, but it was not until the crusader era that they became fashionable with Latin patrons. The Franks of Outremer developed a taste for icons and contributed to the demand already generated by the local Orthodox population for these decorative and devotional objects. Icon artists mass-produced popular images – such as St. George and the dragon and the Virgin with Christ – for sale as finished products, as well as creating half-finished products that could be modified by the insertion of customised features such as a name or coat-of-arms. When commissioned, the local artists also created original works of art with distinctive features.

Another exceptional and decidedly ‘upmarket’ product of the crusader kingdoms was books — commercially produced books. Many visitors to the Holy Land purchased and returned with manuscripts manufactured in Jerusalem, Acre and, later, Cyprus. As with icons, historians believe popular texts were mass-produced; that is, fashionable works were copied and stored in anticipation of a sale.

Because the largest cost factor in books was illumination, mass-produced books had little or no illumination whatsoever. Such books were affordable objects for the middle classes, such as merchants, lawyers and simple knights of modest means. Only rarely did a wealthy secular or ecclesiastical patron commission a work with extensive illumination. While illuminated pieces were rare, they were more highly treasured and, therefore, better preserved, while the more common, mass-produced unillustrated copies have been mostly lost.

Finally, the crusader kingdoms had an important regional monopoly that extended across an array of economic sectors but was most pronounced in craft industries with a decorative component — e.g. pottery, glass, metal- or leather-working and icons or manuscripts. Namely, the production of objects with Christian motifs. These might be as simple as the popular fish motif on pottery plates and beakers or crosses on candlesticks and cutlery. Christian symbols could also be etched, sewn, drawn or branded onto objects designed for daily use, such as a belt buckle, scarf or bodice, saddle or pair of shoes. Yet, they could just as easily be worked into such luxury items as jewelry. Christians of this period were on the whole conventionally devout and unashamed to express it symbolically. Objects with Christian motifs were popular throughout this period with the entire Christian community of the Middle East. In the case of Christians still living under Muslim rule, Christian symbols were forbidden in public and could not be produced locally, making products from the Latin East that could be concealed even more coveted.


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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1 comment:

  1. "The driving force behind this development may have been the importance of sugar as an ingredient for the medicines of this period."

    Only until the advent of chocolate. ;-)


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