Outremer

Jonathan Sumption

  • Crusader Institutions by Joshua Prawer
    Oxford, 519 pp, £30.00, September 1980, ISBN 0 19 822536 9

There are many reasons why a reflective Israeli should be interested in the Crusades apart from the obvious one that geographical coincidence has made them part of the history of his country. The conquest of an Eastern territory by force of arms and the creation of a European society in exile are achievements common enough in the history of the past two centuries. But they have been, by and large, the achievement of colonial powers, and their political development remained in the retentive hands of European functionaries. Israel is different, and so were the Crusading kingdoms of the Levant which preceded it. Here, moreover, Europeans were not colonials but migrants, creating their own institutions. Here they did not have the advantage enjoyed by the Spanish in South America and the British in North America – of being able without too much difficulty to extinguish the indigenous population. Instead they encountered sustained hostility from the previous inhabitants, fed by a religious enthusiasm as powerful as their own.

What the Crusaders created in this unfriendly environment, and why it failed to preserve them from their enemies, are therefore questions of more than historical importance. The Crusading kingdom of Jerusalem lasted precisely 88 years, from the successful culmination of the First Crusade in 1099 to the disastrous defeat at the Horns of Hattin in 1187. Some coastal remnants, scarcely more than city states, survived for another century, together with a few inland fortresses of immense strength. Historical parallels should not, of course, be pushed too far.

Joshua Prawer is the Professor of Medieval European History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Of the 19 essays in this volume ten are new. The other nine (which include the most interesting) have appeared before in arcane professional journals, but their republication in one volume is a valuable tribute to a fine scholar who has contributed more than any other to our knowledge of the internal life of the Crusading kingdoms. All of them were written for an audience of academic specialists and some of the argument is perhaps more easily digested in the form in which it appears in the same author’s History of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem (now available in English translation). But in the main this is an approachable and thought-provoking book for anyone with an interest in and some knowledge of the Crusades.

The essential problem of the kingdom of Jerusalem and the lesser principalities of ‘Outremer’ was a simple and familiar one. It required for its defence a Christian population which its natural resources were inadequate to support. The huge army which conquered Jerusalem in 1099 had come to see the Holy Sepulchre and, having seen it, its members dispersed and went home. A rump remained behind to colonise the country and preserve the Sepulchre for future pilgrims. But it was a small rump, of undistinguished men.

In Jerusalem, where every last man had been massacred on the Crusaders’ entry in 1099, the new Christian population inhabited only one-quarter of the city, and then sparsely. William of Tyre says that in the early years of the 12th century a man might live in the centre of Jerusalem and yet be too far from his neighbours to find help when thieves broke in. Sixty years later the whole Christian population of the kingdom amounted to little more than a hundred thousand, about the size of a modest market town in modern England, and even that population was dispersed over some dozens of fortresses and cities. The army which Saladin defeated at Hattin contained no more than 1200 knights although the barrel had been thoroughly scraped for the campaign. Golden descriptions of the ease and prosperity of the Franks of Outremer were commonplace, but they were fibs designed for European consumption. Immigrants were urgently required and not always recruited by the most scrupulous methods.

The great barrier to immigration was the absence of a livelihood. In Jerusalem there was the tourist trade, which was admittedly considerable. In coastal cities, especially Acre and Tyre, large Italian colonies grew up and with them a vigorous and lucrative commerce, which sometimes justified the tales of profligate oriental luxury circulating in Western Europe. The palace of the Ibelins in Beirut may have been decorated with mosaic and marble. But such conceits were rare even in the richest cities. In rural areas the land was tilled by the natives, mostly Moslems, with some eastern Christians all on the margins of penury. There was hardly any Latin population at all. The land was not rich enough to tempt them, and the Latin élite, civil servants, knights and city-dwellers, were obliged to depend on the labour of an indigenous population which was indifferent even when it was not hostile to them.

What this meant was that the Latins could never occupy the territory as a whole, even those parts of it which were essential for the defence of the cities. Inland, they could only hold out in Jerusalem, for which special efforts were made owing to its spiritual significance; and in great castles like Krak des Chevaliers in the Moab desert, which were few in number because there were not enough men to garrison them. The barons of Outremer were in theory the lords of vast rural domains, but their lordship was effective only when intervals of peace made it possible to impose respect by force. Some landowners enjoyed rights as worthless as those of a Roman Catholic bishop in partibus infidelium. Such a kingdom can never recover from defeat, and when defeat came in 1187 it collapsed like a pack of cards.

The superb narratives of the chronicles of Outremer make it possible to reconstruct these wars in minute detail, but they are not revealing when it comes to the social life of the kingdom. They provide a few anecdotes – colouring and flavouring matter for an account which must inevitably be based on the few remaining record sources. The skilful use of these sources, and above all of the great collections of written laws, has been Prawer’s special contribution to Crusading studies.

Medieval men were obsessed by law. The codes and treatises in which they recorded it are sometimes masterpieces of social observation. Unfortunately the Sire de Beaumanoir, whose legal writings are so informative about 13th-century France and who also wrote poetry and novels, had no equivalent in the kingdom of Jerusalem. The great jurists of the kingdom were tiresome pedagogues, too fond of technicalities. What is more, the social and constitutional system which they described represented the ideal, not the reality, like the perfectly symmetrical cosmographies of the Parisian schoolmen. Much of Prawer’s Crusader institutions is devoted to squeezing from these treacherous sources an astonishing amount of varied information about the political and social life of Outremer.

It was one of the vices of these legal theorists that they were men who allowed their political prejudices to colour their writings, and in their political prejudices they were of one mind. Almost all of them were supporters of the baronage and their constitutional notions left only a limited place for the king. No doubt the wish was father to the thought, but in this respect the accounts of the jurists rang true. The king had indeed a limited part to play.

This was unfortunate for Outremer, which required authoritative government more than anything else except manpower. The first two kings of Jerusalem, Baldwin I and Baldwin II, provided government of this kind. But once the period of expansion was over, the monarchy slowly lost control. There were no longer newly conquered towns, villages and rural expanses to be offered out as the rewards of faithful service, and faithful service became rarer in consequence.

The early Baldwins had hoped to settle their territories with knights, each holding his own fief directly of the crown. This dream receded after about 1130. There were not enough fiefs capable of supporting a knight. Instead a few noble families with lucrative connections in the coastal cities gathered up fiefs by the dozen, so building great territorial principalities in the midst of the kingdom. The knights which the fiefs were expected to provide were hired as mercenaries, and paid from the profits of commercial undertakings in Acre and Tyre.

In place of an army of feudal smallholders, the kingdom had several armies, those of the military orders (who took orders from nobody) and a number of contract armies which varied in strength and whose main loyalties were to their paymasters. For example, Reynaud de Chatillon, lord of the territories west of the Jordan, conducted his own foreign policy and made and broke treaties as he wished. In 1186, when he was ordered to cease pillaging Moslem caravans in breach of the king’s truce, he replied that he was ‘as much lord in his own domain as the king was in his, and he knew no truce with Saracens.’ It was more than a telling and colourful incident. It provoked Saladin’s attack on the kingdom of Jerusalem, in which Reynaud was killed and the hinterland, including the Holy City, lost. Internecine disputes within the Moslem camp and the threat from the Mongols in the east combined to preserve Tyre, Acre, Sidon, Beirut, Tripoli and Antioch, and a shifting inland ribbon, until the latter half of the 13th century. But the Moslems did not regard this as a permanent arrangement and it did not prove to be one.

So ended the Latin empire in the Eastern Mediterranean. It was also the end of a tradition of urban life there which had lasted for a millennium and was not to be revived until modern times. It is as well to be reminded, as Prawer reminds us, of the impermanence of such achievements. Tyre, which had perhaps 25,000 inhabitants in antiquity and half as much again under the Crusaders, whose buildings were as tall as those of Rome in the time of Strabo and whose caravanseries stood six storeys high in the 11th century, slowly became the ghost town which the English traveller Richard Pococke found in 1739: ‘a mere Babel of broken walls, fallen vaults etc ... there being not so much as one entire house left’.