Crusader Society: An Overview

Discover

THE CRUSADER KINGDOMS

The Crusader States established by the First Crusade in 1099 were distinctly different from the feudal societies from which the founders of these states stemmed. To be sure, leaders of the First Crusade sought to recreate familiar structures and customs, but they had to adapt these to the unusual circumstances in which they found themselves. The result was a hybrid-society composed of diverse elements, many of which were found nowhere else in the medieval world. Below is a brief overview of the most unique features.

Elected Kings

Much to the bafflement and frustration of the Byzantines and Saracens, the First Crusade had no single — much less autocratic — ruler. It was led by a handful of noblemen with a variety of feudal ranks from the Prince of Taranto and the Dukes of Lorraine and Normandy to the Counts of Blois and Toulouse. None of these leaders, although they brought varying numbers of their own vassals with them, owed fealty to any one of them. Furthermore, their standing was influence by their wealth (Toulouse was the wealthiest of them although only a count) and above all their military capabilities.  

As a result, after the liberation of Jerusalem there was no obvious leader to make king of the newly won territory. (Being feudal lords, these men felt it was imperative to place Jerusalem in the care of a king, capable of defending and nurturing the precious prize of their pilgrimage.) Without a hereditary leader, the decision of who should be made king of Jerusalem had to be made collectively and by common consent by the remaining leaders of the crusade. This set a precedent that was to be followed through the first century of the existence of the crusader states. (For more details see: The Elected Kingship.)
 
Appointed Barons

If the king was elected, the barons were appointed. Since there were no longer any hereditary Christian lords over the constituent territories of the kingdom any more than there was a Christian king. The newly elected Latin King of Jerusalem was at liberty to reward his followers and supporters with territory at his disposal. During the first half century of the Kingdom’s existence, when it steadily expanded through conquest, the king was well supplied with new lordships to bestow on loyal retainers or other men who distinguished themselves in fighting for the Kingdom.  Furthermore, many of these men had no families, having come to the Holy Land as armed pilgrims, and when they died it was often without heirs. As a result, their lordships frequently reverted to the crown, and could be granted to another deserving man at the king’s pleasure. Many of the lordships changed hands multiple times in the first decades of the 12th century in consequence.

With time, however, the men who remained in the Holy Land took wives, bore children and established dynasties of their own. By 1131, fiefs had become hereditary and inalienable, except when the lord was found guilty of treason by the High Court. The evolution of hereditary lordships/barons eroded the king’s ability to reward favorites, and probably contributed to Amalric I’s ambitions in Egypt; conquering Egypt would have put a lot of territory at his disposal for appointing new barons, whose loyalty he could more readily command.

High Status and Power of Women

As mentioned above, due to the almost continuous fighting and the many exotic diseases for which the Westerners had no immunity, mortality rates among knights and barons in the crusader kingdoms were exceptionally high. While many men died without any heir, even more died without a male heir. The small size of the Latin elite combined with the natural desire of families to retain their lands led to the early recognition of female inheritance. By 1131, laws guaranteed the right of daughters to inherit, and primogeniture of eldest daughter in the absence of a son was recognized. Perhaps not coincidentally, in the same year the kingdom itself passed to a woman, Melisende, who reigned as Queen in her own right, albeit with a consort.  Significantly, she remained queen after her husband’s death, and ruled jointly with her son until tensions between them led to conflict and her early retirement from politics. Nevertheless a precedent was established, which trickled down from the queen to the nobility and the urban classes. Women in the crusader kingdoms enjoyed exceptional freedom and power. (From more details see: Women in the Crusader Kingdoms.)

Native Populations — The Conquered and the Liberated

The Turkish and Arab elites that had controlled the wealth of the territories conquered by the crusaders were either killed or fled as the Franks established themselves in the Holy Land. They left behind a population of peasants, craftsmen and traders.  This population consisted of a varying mix of Orthodox Christians — Greeks, Maronite, Syrian/Jacobite, Coptic — as well as Samaritans, Jews and Muslims. The exact mix varied from place to place, with Greek and Jacobite Christians more prevalent in the Principality of Antioch, Armenians more common in the County of Edessa, Maronites in the County of Tripoli, and Coptics and Samaritans mostly found in the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Significantly, probably no more than 50% of the population was Muslim, and these were predominantly natives of the region who had converted to Islam over the centuries, often more for the economic and social advantages than out of dep conviction. At no time did the situation of the Franks resemble an “occupation” such as we know it from, say, the Nazi occupation of France or the Soviet occupation of Poland, in which the Franks were viewed as oppressors of a unified native population. From the point of view of the native population, the Franks were just another in a long series of over-lords stretching back far before the Romans.

From the crusader point of view, however, the value and loyalty of these different populations varied greatly. The Muslims were viewed with mistrust and were not entrusted with bearing arms. They were mostly peasants, and so they remained; they were tied to the land they worked (as they had been under their Turkish, Arab, Greek and Roman masters before), but they were never subject to forced conversion. Furthermore, they were allowed to retain their own customs and courts for family, religious and internal disputes. Jews and Samaritans, on the other hand, were more likely to be city dwellers with urban occupations and hence less-likely to be serfs.  Nevertheless, they were also allowed to continue living according to their own laws and traditions beyond being subject to an additional tax — just as under the Muslims. While not viewed with as much suspicion as the Muslims, they were certainly not trusted with arms.

The Greeks and Syrian Christians were on the whole loyal to the new regime. They benefited from no longer being subject to special taxes as under the Arabs and Turks, and viewed Frankish rule as an improvement — contrary to popular misconceptions. (Read more under “The Other Christians.”) While these natives contributed economically to the growth and prosperity of the crusader states, they were not notable for their skill at arms. In contrast, the Maronites and Armenians were not only Christians loyal to the crusader-elites that they recognized as liberators, they also proved to be good fighting men. These were the populations that provided the bulk of the so-called “Turcopoles,”which were not, as so often described, mercenaries or converts from Islam. Altogether, the Orthodox Christians made up a fundamentally loyal lower and middle-class component in crusader society, but nevertheless remained fundamentally “alien” because of the language barrier. While these elements of the population were Christian in faith, they had become predominantly Arabic speakers and had adopted many of the customs of social customs and fashions of their conquerors over the previous centuries.

Settlers — The Frankish Upper Middle Class

The magnitude of Western settlement in the Holy Land is often overlooked or under-estimated. Modern demographic modelling suggests that as many as 140,000 Latin (Western) Christians settled in the Kingdom of Jerusalem between the First Crusade and the fall of Jerusalem to Saladin in 1187.  Since the estimated total population of the Kingdom was just 600,000, Latin settlers made up more than 20% of the total population.

Significantly, none of these settlers were serfs. The bulk of settlers were tradesmen and craftsmen, the kind of men who enjoyed free status even in the West and were part of the increasingly independent and prosperous Middle Class across Europe. Notably, however, even if they settled in rural villages and pursued agriculture as a profession — as archaeology demonstrates many did! — they remained free men. Here they were small land-holders, feudal tenants to the Church or the baronial “tenants-in-chief.” Whether urban or rural, they were comparatively prosperous, independent and self-confident elements that identified very strongly with the Latin leadership in the Holy Land, both secular and sacred. Fulcher of Chartres famously wrote of these men:

The Italian and Frenchman of yesterday have…become men of Galilee and Palestine… The immigrant is one with the inhabitants…. [B]y the grace of God, he who was poor attains riches [in Outremer]. He who had no more than a few deniers finds himself in possession of a fortune. He who owned not so much as one village finds himself, by God’s grace, the lord of a city.

These were impassioned supporters of the regime because without it they lost their new-found status, wealth and identity.

As such they made up the essential and highly effective infantry backbone of crusader armies. The crusader kingdoms were acutely dependent upon well-equipped, experienced infantry to serve as garrisons in cities and castles and provide the infantry shield essential for medieval cavalry.  It was the settlers of lower birth and rank that provided the bulk of both, supported by the less well-equipped Turcopoles. They shared not only the Latin faith, but far more important spoke (through Latin) a common tongue — and as free men they were positioned to make enough money to outfit themselves with leather or linen armor and quality infantry weapons. Their position was so important and so unique that a new term evolved to describe them: sergeants.

Militant Orders — Children of the Crusades

The need to defend the crusader states produced another new and unique category of fighting men as well: fighting monks. The concept of fighting monks was alien to early Christian theology and all the militant orders (Templars, Hospitallers, Teutonic Knights etc.) post-date the First Crusade, although the Hospitallers had their roots in monks who provided medical assistance to the sick in Jerusalem before the liberation of Jerusalem in 1099. 

The main militant orders, the Templars and Hospitallers, had a mandate to protect Christians in the Holy Land, and were conspicuously absent from crusades against heretics or even other heathens. Although both the Templars and Hospitallers eventually acquired vast estates across Europe, their mission remained the defense of Christians and Christian territory against non-believers. By the mid-12th century, the military resources of the Templars and Hospitallers were substantial. In the 13th Century, their military resources far outstripped the secular forces of the much diminished crusader states. The role of the militant orders grew commensurately with the comparative strength and soon they assumed control of many border territories and castles originally held and garrisoned by Frankish barons. Fundamental to understanding the role of these non-secular fighting forces is that the militant orders were at no time subject to the secular authorities. The King of Jerusalem could not command them. He always had to negotiate with their leaders for support, and they could and often did act independently and at times pursued contrary policies to the king and to each other.

Trade and Tourism — the Unique Economic Formula of the Crusader Kingdoms

Last but not least, the economy of the crusader kingdoms was significantly more urbanized than Europe in this period. This had not been the case prior to the establishment of the crusader states. Under Arab and Turkish rule, the coastal cities of the Levant languished in comparative obscurity. The commercial, religious and administrative centers of the Abbasid and Fatimid Caliphates were Baghdad and Cairo respectively. The great cities of the Muslim world included Alexandria and Damietta, Damascus, Aleppo and Mosul. Jerusalem was a backwater. Caesarea had been all but abandoned. Jaffa and Acre were secondary ports.

The re-establishment of Christian rule in the Holy Land, however, opened the entire region to a flood of Christian pilgrims. Tens of thousands travelled each year to the Holy Land from all across Christendom from as far away as Norway and Ethiopia. This massive “tourist” industry required supportive infrastructure such as inns and taverns, souvenir shops and guides. The pilgrims brought wealth into the economy — and returned home with tales of the many wonderful things they had seen from silk and sugar to ivory, incense, perfumes, soap and glass.

Demand for the products of the Middle East grew with the pilgrim streams. Many of the products were produced directly in the crusader states — sugar was an important export, for example, and to a lesser extent, olive oil, and citrus fruits were also exported. But the crusader states also produced quality glassware, ceramics, illuminated manuscripts, soap, perfumes, and a variety of fine textiles. Many other goods came from farther away and were exported to the West through the ports of the crusader kingdoms — silk from China, weapons from Damascus, ivory from India, incense from Ethiopia.  It was the crusader’s ties to the West that fed that trade, and as the economies of Western Europe expanded in the 13th century, the demand for the “luxuries” from the East expanded as well. In consequence, the proportion of the population living in cities and from non-agricultural activities grew steadily, a tendency intensified but the loss of more than half the territory of the crusader states in the aftermath of the defeat at the Battle of Hattin.

By the second half of the 13th century, services and manufacturing played a much more significant role than agriculture in the economy of the crusader states. This growing urbanization, combined with a strong and prosperous middle-class in multi-cultural and multi-lingual society made the crusader states significantly more “modern” that contemporary societies in East or West.