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Monday, May 1, 2023

The Economy of the Crusader States: Trade

  Without doubt, trade was the main engine of economic prosperity in the crusader states. It is easy to conclude, as many historians have written, that geography dictated this development. That ignores the fact that before and after Frankish rule, the coastal ports were provincial backwaters with little role in the international carrying trade. In the pre- and post-crusades eras, Constantinople and Alexandria – not Acre, Tyre or Famagusta – were the principal trading hubs of the Eastern Mediterranean.


Under the Franks, in contrast, trade flourished on a scale unknown under the Arabs or the Turks. Three factors can best explain the blossoming of trade during the era of the crusades: (1) the overall economic revival of the region under the Franks, which included a growing permanent and transient population (pilgrims, crusaders), (2) the development of new industries (e.g., sugar, wine, religious tourism, glass, icons, books), and (3) Christian dominance of the waterways, making trade across the Mediterranean comparatively safe for Western merchants. Together, these factors sparked a commercial ‘revolution’ that peaked during the crusader era and subsided afterwards. Furthermore, while the principal beneficiaries of this commercial revolution were the crusader states, a revival of trade was felt across the Mediterranean. This was simply because ships of this period needed to make several stops for water and provisioning when travelling long distances.

Before looking more closely at the components of this trade, it is necessary to stress that the ‘safety’ of shipping in this era was relative rather than absolute. To be sure, from roughly 1123, when the Venetians destroyed a large Fatimid fleet until the rise of the Ottomans, the Mediterranean was dominated by Western naval power. In the twelfth century, the combination of Byzantine, Sicilian and Italian naval power protected Europe’s merchant shipping. In later centuries, the Italians (particularly Venice) and the Hospitallers (Knights of Rhodes and Malta) provided this protection. However, rivalries between the various maritime states also led to periodic naval warfare. Although diminished, Egyptian fleets were likewise active from time to time and proved capable of preying upon Christian merchant shipping. Furthermore, the Venetians were more likely to attack the ships of their Christian rivals (as they had attacked Zara and Constantinople on land) than Muslim shipping. Finally, pirates were never eliminated. While the Mediterranean was not ‘safe’ in the modern sense of the word, it had become sufficiently safe by the standards of the day — with ample profits — to enable trade to grow at exponential rates.

In turn, trade sparked significant advances in naval architecture and a reorientation of production across the region. At the end of the eleventh century, ships were small, single-decked, with at most two-masts, and had steering oars instead of central rudders. By the time Acre fell to the Mamluks, three-masted ships with multiple decks and central rudders were standard. Meanwhile, the economies of the Mediterranean basin shifted their focus away from pure domestic demand towards production for export. Within half a century, trade had become so significant and lucrative that economies began to specialise in sectors in which they held a comparative advantage.  

Yet while it is easy to see why trade between the Christian states on the littoral of the Mediterranean flourished after the establishment of the crusader states, the more surprising development was the dramatic expansion of trade with the Muslim world — and beyond. Exposure to the ‘luxuries of the orient’ sparked demand for those products in the West. Suddenly spices, pharmaceuticals (such as opium), gold, ivory, incense, silk, and other exotic products such as Chinese porcelain, could be purchased in Christian ports.

To be sure, the most adventurous Western merchants had not hesitated to do business in Arab ports, chiefly in Alexandria, before the establishment of the crusader states. Nevertheless, the sheer explosion in trade after the establishment of Frankish control of the ports of the Levant is itself evidence that most Western Christian merchants of this period were more comfortable trading through Christian ports. This was so much the case that Acre came to rival or possibly briefly eclipsed Alexandria as the most vital trading hub in the eastern Mediterranean. The preference of Christian merchants for Christian ports is understandable. Christian merchants enjoyed substantial privileges in the crusader states, and they felt protected in a way impossible in Muslim countries, where they were highly vulnerable to sudden shifts in policy. The crusader states provided merchants with a base in the Middle East, a foothold where they felt safe and from which they could cautiously explore and exploit opportunities further inland.

For Muslim merchants, trade with the West was lucrative enough to justify the comparatively low risk of venturing — usually only for a few days at a time — into Christian-controlled territory. Muslim trade was aided by Islamic teachings of the era that explicitly condoned trade with ‘the enemy’, provided ‘war materials’ were not among the items sold. Thus, Muslim merchants were prohibited from selling weapons, armour, slaves and horses to the Christian West but were otherwise free to trade.

Trade was profitable not only for those engaged in it but for the states through which it passed. Both Christians and Muslims taxed the goods exported, imported and transited through their territories. These taxes and duties were so crucial to the revenue of the rulers that Christian and Muslim alike became increasingly reluctant to disrupt trade through warfare. Indeed, hostilities were sometimes carried out without any impact on trade. The Iberian Muslim traveller, Ibn Jubayr, noted while travelling to Mecca via the Kingdom of Jerusalem in 1184:

‘Muslim and Christian … armies may meet … and yet Muslim and Christian travellers come and go … without interference. [Even while Saladin was attacking Kerak] the caravans still passed successively from Egypt to Damascus, going through the land of the Franks without impediment from them. In the same way, the Muslims continuously journeyed from Damascus to Acre [through Frankish territory unharmed]… . The soldiers … engage themselves in their war, while the civilians are at peace’.[i]

The trade routes that converged on the ports of the crusader states in the twelfth century reached all the way to China, India, Siberia and Ethiopia. Siberia sent ermine, marten, otter, beaver and wild cat hides to be worked and sold in the long ‘Street of the Furriers’ in Jerusalem. Ethiopia sent gold, ivory and incense. From India and China came opium, jade, pearls, porcelain, silk and spices such as pepper, cinnamon and ginger. In addition, ship inventories and customs documents attest to trade in perfume, musk, myrrh, balm, aloe, gum and senna. The Arabian Peninsula provided marble and enameled pottery, while Egypt was a source of cotton and flax. Syria sent carpets, textiles, cotton, and damascened copper and steel weapons — despite the religious prohibitions on selling weapons to the ‘enemy’. From Western Europe came timber, iron and scrap iron, silver, copper, amber and wool.

Notably, many of the products from the West, such as timber and iron, contributed to Muslim military capability. In consequence, there were sporadic attempts by various popes in the fourteenth century to prohibit the sale of these commodities to Muslim customers. But the greed of merchants always triumphed over their sense of solidarity with Christianity. Even more reprehensibly, the West was a major source of slaves for the slave- markets of the Muslim world. The Italian merchant states specialised in transshipping human beings from the pagan wilds of northeastern Europe and from Constantinople via the crusader states to the Muslim states. Many of those slaves would later become Mamluks and contribute to the downfall of Frankish rule.

In addition to the export items produced in the crusader states, the Frankish ports became large warehousing and transshipment centres for goods in transit between regions beyond the borders of the crusader states. Here goods were collected and stored, enabling a rationalization of transport. For example, a camel caravan from India might bring hundreds of different products in small quantities. These were then stored in Acre until sufficient quantities of each product had been collected to justify a shipment to the West. This reduced freight costs and improved profit margins.

While trade brought revenue to the political elites in both East and West who taxed the import, export, and transshipment of goods, as well as the ships that anchored and the caravans that passed through the gates of the cities, the merchants themselves made the largest profits. In the crusader states, trade was dominated by the Italian city-states. Much has been written about their role in the Latin East economy, yet their contribution remains highly controversial. Some historians, such as Joshua Prawer, argue that too many privileges and monopolies were granted to the Italian maritime powers, resulting in lost income to the crown and a stifling of a native or Frankish merchant class. Other historians, such as Jonathan Riley-Smith, counter that the networks, experience and overall competence of the established Italian mercantile states fostered a faster growth of trade than would otherwise have been possible. In this sense, he suggests their activities contributed substantially to the crusader states’ overall economic prosperity, therefore benefitting all.

There can be little doubt that whatever benefits accrued to the crusader states were a by-product rather than the goal of the Italians. Where commercial interests collided with crusader interests, the Italians routinely sacrificed the welfare of the crusades and the crusader states for their own profits and benefits. This was seen most vividly in the so-called Fourth Crusade and the ‘War’ of St. Sabas. Ultimately, regardless of the economic gains of the Italian mercantile presence in the Latin East, it had become a political liability by the mid-thirteenth century. Intensifying rivalries contributed to the growing fragmentation within Frankish society, seriously undermining the viability of the crusader states on the mainland of the Levant. In Cyprus, too, it was the Genoese and Venetians — not the Turks — that ultimately destroyed the Lusignan dynasty and, with it, the independent Latin kingdom. 


[i] Ibn Jubayr quoted in Yehoshua Frankel, ‘Muslim Responses to the Frankish Dominion of the Near East, 1098-1291’ in The Crusades and the Near East: Cultural Histories, ed. Conor Kostick (London: Routledge, 2011), 43.


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. A rich and interesting history, often ignored in favor of the war stories.


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