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Wednesday, July 19, 2023

Life in the Crusader States: Language

Language has a powerful yet often subconscious impact on identity and culture. When the crusaders arrived in the Holy Land, the languages most commonly spoken by the region’s natives were Arabic and Syriac. Greek, which had been the official and commercial language for roughly a thousand years, was also still spoken by some in urban areas, at least as a second language. In the north, particularly in Edessa, Armenian was the dominant language. Despite their diverse backgrounds, the crusaders spoke French as a common language supported by Latin, particularly among the clerics, and French remained the language of the Franks of Outremer for the next 200 years -- but not as people did in France and not exclusively.


While the Franks spoke French well and could communicate with Europeans in this tongue, the spoken French of Outremer developed its own character. The residents of the Holy Land rapidly began ‘to use the eloquence and idioms of diverse languages in conversing back and forth [and] words of different languages [became] common property known to each nationality’.[i]

In rural areas, settlers generally moved into existing towns and villages, working the land on the periphery and cultivating land that had lain fallow; they were initially heavily dependent on the help and advice of the natives to cope with an alien climate and unfamiliar crops. In urban areas, too, the local population far outnumbered the Franks, at least in the first half-century. The Franks frequented local shops, employed local craftsmen, drank in taverns and bathed in bathhouses, all run by natives. The Franks’ dependence on the native population created an urgent need to communicate and fostered friendships and marriage.

Among the lower classes of the second and third generation, many Franks were the product of mixed marriages; that is, they had mothers who had grown up speaking Armenian, Syriac or Arabic. Fulcher of Chartres, writing before 1130, notes: ‘For we who were occidentals have now become orientals… . Some [of us] have taken wives not only of [our] own people but Syrians or Armenians or even Saracens who have obtained the grace of baptism. One has his father-in-law as well as his daughter-in-law living with him, or … his stepson or stepfather’.[ii] Such arrangements fostered bilingualism as children grew up speaking their mother and father’s tongues.

Even among the feudal elite, intermarriage was strikingly common in the First Kingdom. Baldwin I and Baldwin II both married Armenian women, as did Joscelyn I of Edessa. Kings Baldwin III and Amalric took Greek Byzantine brides. Isabella I of Jerusalem, from whom all the thirteenth-century ruling monarchs of the kingdom descended, was one-half Greek, one-quarter Armenian, and only one-quarter Frankish.

While there is no recorded incident of a knight or lord marrying a Saracen (despite what Fulcher of Chartres says about men of lower rank doing so), surprisingly there is substantial, if anecdotal, evidence that many of the ruling feudal elite spoke fluent Arabic. Various chronicles record, usually without comment, how Frankish lords communicated in Arabic. We know that both Humphrey de Toron II and III spoke Arabic, as did Raymond of Tripoli and Hugh of Caesarea. Some of these lords, such as Renard de Sidon and Nicolas of Acre, read Arabic well enough to translate it. Baldwin d’Ibelin translated Arabic poetry into French. William of Tyre wrote a history of Islam based on Arab primary sources. Some historians allege that the Franks of the second and third generation spoke and read Arabic ‘better than their European vernaculars’, although the basis for this assertion is unclear.[iii] Nevertheless, we know that the sons of John of Beirut, who spent at least half their lives in Greek-speaking Cyprus, were sufficiently fluent in Arabic to translate what the Mamluks were saying in Arabic among themselves to Jean de Joinville during the Seventh Crusade. Indeed, some of the Ibelins spoke French, Arabic, Greek and Latin by this point.

The linguistic situation in Cyprus was different. Arabic had never taken hold on the island, and the majority of the native population spoke Greek. Despite the influx of Syriac and Arabic-speaking refugees from the mainland in the latter half of the thirteenth century, Greek remained the dominant language. French was spoken at the Lusignan court and among the Frankish feudal elite, but Greek was used for various administrative purposes, in diplomatic correspondence and to communicate with tenants, peasants, workers and the like. Consequently, the immigrants were forced to learn Greek, and within a few generations, Cyprus had evolved its own Greek dialect with strong influence from French and Italian. Indeed, one thirteenth-century Greek intellectual complained of the ‘barbarisation’ of Greek and claimed that ‘people learned ‘Frankish’, so that no one knew what their language was any more’. [iv]

[i] Fulcher of Chartres’ History, Book III, quoted in The Crusades: A Reader, eds. S.J. Allen and Emilie Amt (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014), 88-89.

[ii] Fulcher of Chartres, A History of the Expedition to Jerusalem, 1095-1127, Book III, translated by F.R. Ryan (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1969), 152. Reproduced in The Crusades: A Reader, eds. S.J. Allen and Emilie Amt (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014), 88.

[iii] Urban Tignor Holmes, ‘Life among the Europeans in Palestine and Syria in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Century’ in A History of the Crusades Volume 4: The Art and Architecture of the Crusader States, ed. Harry W. Hazard (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1977), 41.

[iv] Gilles Grivaud, ‘Literature’, in Cyprus: Society and Culture 1191-1374, eds. Angel Nicolaou-Konnari and Chris Schabel (Leiden: Brill, 2005), 223.


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 spoken French of Outremer developed its own character."

    Shades of "Cajun French!"


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