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Wednesday, August 30, 2023

Life in the Crusader States: Frankish Fashion

 In medieval times the residents of Outremer -- the land beyond the seas or what was also known as the Holy Land -- had a reputation for "scandalous" clothes. The expressed shock of some visitors to the crusader states has misled subsequent generations into fantasizing about oriental dress and Hollywood naturally adopted this exotic, but unfounded, image. The reality looked different.


The transient nature of clothing inhibits our ability to know precisely what the residents of Outremer wore. Textile and garment fragments, illustrations, and descriptions in contemporary chronicles are our only primary sources to reconstruct Frankish fashion. Broadly speaking, church and military dress was widely standardised. Although military dress underwent significant changes in the 200 years between 1099 and 1291, this evolution of arms, armour and tack was not unique to the Latin East. Despite minor local variations, major innovations that provided substantial advantages in offense or defence were rapidly adopted across Western Christendom by the ruling military elite that proved remarkably mobile and cosmopolitan.

However, one of the innovations in the military dress widely adopted throughout Europe originated in the East. This was the ‘surcoat’, a cloth garment worn over armour. Because the intense sun of the Middle East made chainmail dangerously hot, the early crusaders rapidly learned to keep it comparatively cool by covering it with a thin, loose and flowing cloth, as the Arabs did. With the surcoat came the opportunity to wear bright colours and distinguishing devices or ‘arms’. Hence, the evolution of heraldry goes hand-in-hand with the emergence of the surcoat as an integral part of a knight’s battle dress.

Off the battlefield, the Franks may have been tempted to adopt some of the clothing customs of native inhabitants. However, there is little evidence to support this as depictions of barons and knights in manuscripts, sculptures, and on seals consistently show men of the military elite in military regalia, while bishops and priests look just like their counterparts in the West. The one exception is the rulers of the Latin East, who are frequently portrayed in Byzantine attire. Certainly, the Latin emperors of Constantinople affected ‘Eastern’ dress (meaning Byzantine, not Arab) in the early part of the thirteenth century.

Nevertheless, we have some tantalizing documentary evidence that, off the battlefield, Outremer’s feudal elite developed some distinctive fashions. For example, during the Third Crusade, a commentator from the West noted:

The sleeves of their garments were fastened with gold chains, and they wantonly exposed their waists, which were confined with embroidered belts, and they kept back with their arms their cloaks, which were fastened so that not a wrinkle should be seen in their garments … and round their necks were collars glittering with jewels.[i]

In short, the Franks of Outremer had adopted or developed some fashions that looked strange — even wanton — to visitors from Western Europe. Based on their practice in other fields from architecture to miniatures, the Frankish knights and nobles probably developed their own hybrid style.

The women of Outremer are represented less frequently in art and when shown are always in conventional Western garb. Contrary to popular fiction and film, we know that they did not adopt the Muslim custom of going about veiled. James of Vitry (Bishop of Acre 1216-1228) describes with disgust the fact that Syrian Christians still ‘obliged’ their daughters (though notably not their wives) to go completely veiled, so they were unrecognizable. Other Christian women, most especially Vitry’s flock of Latin Christians, clearly did not hide under veils.

In addition, Muslim sources rave about (or condemn) the Frankish women for their seductiveness — something not possible if they were hidden behind the same, opaque black garments as their Muslim counterparts, which obscured face and figure. The poet Ibn al-Qaysarani, for example, was so enraptured by Frankish women that he wrote ‘effusive poems’ praising their — very visible — beauty.[ii] Ibn Jubayr likewise gives evidence that Frankish women went unveiled in his detailed description of a bride and her maids-in-waiting, concluding with the remark: ‘God protect us from the seduction of the sight’.[iii] 

That said, it would not be surprising if Frankish women did not adopt some means of protecting their skin from the ravages of the Middle Eastern sun. One of the illuminated copies of William of Tyre’s ‘Deeds Done Beyond the Seas’, includes a picture of Queen Melisende wearing a broad-brimmed sun hat — not standard attire in Paris or London. It is also conceivable that transparent veils might have been worn when outdoors.

While the style of clothing worn by Frankish women may not have differed much from the latest fashion in London, Paris and Pisa, the materials used could have made a significant difference to the effect of those clothes. The same cut of a chemise or tunic, the same style of mantle or cloak will fall, fold, billow and sway differently, depending on its fabric. Many of the textiles of Outremer were sheer, translucent or semi-transparent. Depending on how such materials were used, they could have created enticing (or in the eye of clerics and conservatives, vulgar and immodest) garments, all without deviating from Western fashion.

Likewise, a gown that is simple in cut and form can be transformed by silk brocade or a weft of gold into something — depending on your ideology — stunning and luxurious or self-indulgent and extravagant. Archaeologists have uncovered thousands of fabric fragments dating to the crusader era. They include silk, cotton, linen, felt, wool, and cloth woven from goat and camel hair. There were also several hybrid fabrics composed of a warp from one kind of yarn and weft from another, such as silk woven with wool, linen or cotton.

Certainly, some of the finest cloth known to the medieval world originated in the Near East. Familiar words, like damask, gauze and muslin, derive their names from the cities that first produced them in export quantities, namely Damascus, Gaza and Mosul, respectively. Cloth of gold was known in this period as siqlatin, a term that derives from silk-Latin or Latin silk, an indication that this extravagantly expensive and beautiful material was particularly popular with Outremer’s Latin elites.

Almost as important as the cloth from which clothes were made were the dyes used to colour them. Here again, the crusader states sat near the source of many materials coveted for dying. Saffron, turmeric and indigo ― not to mention the murex snails needed for vivid scarlet and rich purple dye ― were more readily available and cheaper in the crusader states than Western Europe. This makes it probable they were used more widely and generously in Outremer, producing much brighter hues than were common in the West.

Finally, decoration contributes to fashion. In the crusader era, weaving with different coloured threads, block printing and embroidery were all popular forms of decoration. Silk brocade and stitching with spun gold were particularly expensive and coveted forms of textile ornamentation known to have been exported from, if not produced in, the crusader states. The late nineteenth-century historian Claude Reigner Conder claims the Latin ladies wore ‘long-trained dresses with long, wide sleeves’ (no different from the ladies of the French or Angevin courts in this period), but (perhaps more unusual) they were ‘decked in samite and cloth of gold, with pearls and precious stones’ — something that sounds distinctly Byzantine.

It was probably the combination of fine fabric and vivid shades of dye with decorations of gold and bejeweled embroidery that made the clothing of Outremer’s Latin elites seem exotic to visitors from the West. Crusaders often commented that the lords of Outremer were wealthy and luxury-loving. Part of that reputation undoubtedly originated in the apparent extravagance of dress that came from being able to afford for everyday use textiles that were saved for special occasions in the West. In conclusion, while fashion in crusader states was set more in Paris and Constantinople than Damascus and Cairo. Yet the use of sheer fabrics, bright colors, and expensive and elaborate decoration made it seem more exotic — not to say scandalous — to many a Western observer.

[i] Jeoffrey de Vinsauf quoted in Claude Reignier Conder, The Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, 1099 – 1291 (London: Committee of the Palestine Exploration Fund, 1897, reproduced by Elibront Classics, 2005), 178.

[ii] Niall Christie, Muslims and Crusaders: Christianity’s Wars in the Middle East, 1095-1382, from The Islamic Sources (London: Routledge, 2014), 83.

[iii] Ibn Jubayr, The Travels of Ibn Jubayr, trans. R.J.C. Broadhurst (London: Jonathan Cape, 1952), reprinted in S.J. Allen and Emilie Amt, The Crusades: A Reader (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014), 106-107.

This text was first published in

Helena P. Schrader, ‘The Scandalous Frankish Fashions: Outfitting Outremer’, The Medieval Magazine, Issue 124: 83-89.

It is also integrated into 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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Tuesday, August 22, 2023

Life in the Crusader States: Medical Care

 For all their other significant contributions to social welfare, it was with respect to medical care that the Hospitallers made the greatest impact not just on the Holy Land but on all of Western Europe.

It is important to recall that prior to the First Crusade Western Europe did not have a network of hospitals where acutely ill patients received professional medical treatment. There were, of course, infirmaries in religious houses for the care of ailing members of the community, but they were not established for the benefit of, nor available to, the general public. Furthermore, the infirmarer (the person in charge of an infirmary in a medieval monastery) and his assistants were first and foremost monks and nuns, rather than trained doctors and nurses. There were also almshouses for the infirm and ageing, hospices for the dying, and various charitable institutions to look after the chronically and incurably ill, such as lepers, the blind and the seriously disabled. In general, however, if the rich were sick, they sent for a physician to treat them in their homes; if the poor got sick, they treated themselves or sought the services of a barber or other informally-trained medical practitioner. Another feature of eleventh-century Western medicine was the emphasis on spiritual healing through prayer. While men and women patients were separated, there was little to no attempt to separate patients based on the type of illness that afflicted them.

The Byzantine tradition was quite different. Already by the seventh century, most hospitals in the Eastern Roman Empire were financially independent. They employed paid, professional staff rather than relying on members of a monastic institution to provide care and treatment to patients. Most Byzantine hospitals were modest in size, ranging from ten to a hundred beds. Only the most prestigious hospitals in Constantinople were larger. These employed multiple physicians and surgeons (further specialised by the type of surgery performed), pharmacists, attendants (nurses), instrument sharpeners, priests, cooks and latrine cleaners. The administration of these institutions was in the hands of the senior medical staff, and the patients were housed in wards based on gender and medical condition. Notably, female doctors are recorded working in the women’s wards as well as female nurses.

Equally important, the medical staff of Byzantine hospitals were paid only low salaries, and served only for six months of a year; presumably, they earned the bulk of their income from private practice in the six months when they did not work in the hospital. This suggests that Byzantine hospitals, although no longer run by the Church, were nevertheless viewed as charitable institutions accessible to the poor. While most junior doctors earned no salary because they were considered apprentices in their craft, the larger hospitals contained libraries and teaching staff, making these comparable to modern teaching hospitals. 

In the Muslim world, the concept of an institution dedicated to healing the sick appears to have been adopted after contact with the Eastern Roman Empire, i.e., following the conquest of Syria and the Levant. It soon became a matter of prestige, however, for Muslim rulers to establish and endow hospitals. By the twelfth century, most major cities in the Middle East boasted at least one, if not more, hospitals. The staff of these hospitals was all paid medical professionals and could be drawn from any faith — Muslim, Christian or Jewish. Although nursing staff in the women’s wards were female, doctors were invariably male. The famous Adudi hospital in Baghdad (and presumably other hospitals) was also a training institution with a library and a staff that wrote medical texts. 

The administration of most hospitals in the Muslim world was in the hands of a bureaucrat appointed by the ruler. In short, even in the age of the crusades, these hospitals were ‘public’ in the sense of being state-run. The salaries were small, and again, the doctors worked only half of the time (half-days rather than alternating months), enabling them to earn ‘real’ money with private patients. Hospitals in the Dar al-Islam were large, often having several thousand beds. Patients were separated by sex and condition. Possibly due to the nomadic past of Arab and Turkish Muslims, the Muslim states were extremely progressive regarding the establishment of mobile hospitals. These traveled with the Sultan’s armies as early as 942. Mobile hospitals also provided care to outlying, rural areas. 

The hospitals of the Order of St. John drew on Byzantine and Muslim traditions while retaining some features of Western medical care. Unsurprisingly for a religious order, the Hospitallers maintained the Western emphasis on prayer as a means to recovery. The wards were usually situated to enable patients to hear Mass being read in an adjacent chapel or church. Furthermore, patients were expected to confess their sins on admittance to the hospital because it was believed that sin (and God’s displeasure) could cause illness. That said, since Muslims and Jews were treated in the hospitals, we must presume that confession was an option as opposed to a requirement. 

Breaking with Western tradition, the hospitals run by the Order of St. John employed professionally-trained doctors and surgeons by the second half of the twelfth century, at the latest. Jewish doctors were also employed, taking the oath required of doctors on the ‘Jewish book’ rather than the bible. In contrast to both Byzantine and Muslim practice, the doctors of the Order of St. John were well-paid and worked full-time in the hospitals. On the other hand, the attendants or caregivers were predominantly brothers and sisters of the Order of St. John, i.e., monks and nuns. As such, they had no formal medical training, although they presumably gained extensive on-the-job training. The male caregivers are listed as ‘sergeants’ in the order’s records, a comparatively high status. The Rule of the Order of St. John required the nursing staff (male and female) to serve the sick ‘with enthusiasm and devotion as if they were their Lords’.

Like the Muslims, the Order of St. John maintained exceptionally large hospitals in major cities, such as Jerusalem, Nablus and Acre. The Hospital in Jerusalem had more than 2,000 beds, for example, and was divided into eleven wards for men and an unknown number of wards for women. (All contemporary accounts were written by male patients, who did not have access to the women’s wards.) Patients appear to have been segregated not only by sex but by type of illness, although this may not have been possible at smaller institutions in more provincial towns. The larger hospitals, such as those in Jerusalem, Nablus and Acre, are described as ‘palaces’ by eyewitnesses, who stress they were built to provide adequate room for patients and personnel to move between beds. Furthermore, they had large windows that let in fresh air and light. Archaeology has brought to light an aqueduct apparently leading to the flagship hospital of the Order in Jerusalem. In addition, no less than five large cisterns provided water, and a network of drains made it possible to flush out refuse and human waste. 

Diet formed an essential part of the treatment in Hospitaller establishments, possibly because so many patients were pilgrims suffering more from malnutrition than disease. Food poisoning and various forms of dietary problems were common in this period. Furthermore, medieval medicine was based on the premise that illness resulted from an imbalance between the ‘humours’ (e.g., blood and bile), and that proper diet could restore a healthy ‘balance’. Certain foods, notably lentils, beans and cheese, were prohibited in the hospitals of St. John, but white bread, meat and wine were daily fare. Patients also benefitted from the wide variety of fruits available in the Holy Land: pomegranates, figs, grapes, plums, pears and apples are all mentioned in Hospitaller records. 

Finally, in addition to following the Muslim example of mobile field hospitals, the Hospitallers created the first known ambulance service. The brothers of St. John combed the streets for those in need of care and carried them back to their hospitals. Likewise, during a military campaign, the Hospitallers scoured the battlefields for the injured and brought them to their hospital tents. Those who needed further care were transported to an urban hospital — even if the knights of the order had to surrender their warhorses to ensure transport. It is, therefore, particularly appropriate that one of the most active and successful successors of the Hospitallers is St. John’s Ambulance corps.

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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