Friday, October 20, 2017

Courts of All Kinds: The Legal System in the Crusader Kingdoms

Arguably the most fundamental function of any state is the administration of justice. It is when a government fails to deliver justice that it loses its legitimacy, and either becomes tyrannical or starts to disintegrate into anarchy. This is what makes the study of legal systems so essential to the understanding and assessment of the legitimacy and efficacy of any government. The legal system in the Kingdom of Jerusalem is no exception.

Fundamental to an effective system of justice is that the participants accept and recognize the legitimacy of the legal authorities. This is notoriously difficult when the administrators of justice speak a different language, have a different faith, or follow different legal traditions from the subjects of the legal system. As a result, the imposition of law by an invading force is inherently challenging, and wise conquerors have generally been cautious about replacing local law and custom with their own system.

The Kingdom of Jerusalem faced a particularly daunting challenge, because from its inception the Kingdom of Jerusalem was a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual and religiously diverse state.  Quite aside from the new comers from Western Europe, the native population of the Holy Land was already polyglot and non-homogeneous when the men of the First Crusade arrived. There were, for example, still Jews living in the Holy Land, although their numbers were comparatively small, a large portion of the native population had converted to Islam at some point in the more than four hundred years since the first Arab invasion. However, often forgotten by modern commentators, the majority of the population was composed of Orthodox Christians. These, in turn were composed not only of Syrian Orthodox Christians (both Maronite and Jacobite), but also Greek, Armenian, Coptic and even Ethiopian Orthodox communities.  

The rulers of the crusader states responded intelligently to the challenge confronting them by allowing a network of partially over-lapping local courts (in the vernacular) to continue, while adding two additional courts for the newcomers, the High Court (see separate entry) and the Low Court.  They then followed the overriding principle of judgement by one’s peers, supplemented by two corollary principles: that in disputes between individuals from different strata of society, the case should be tried before the peers of the weaker (lower) person, and in cases between individuals from different ethnic groups of the same strata, the case should be brought before the peers of the defendant. 

The practical outcome of this theoretical approach is that in all matters of family and religious law, the residents of the crusader states sought resolution from the religious authorities of their respective religion whether Islam, Judaism, one of the many forms of Orthodoxy, or before Latin Christian (Catholic) ecclesiastical courts. In rural areas, furthermore, civil and criminal cases not involving a Frank were tried before local/native judges in accordance with the laws and customs predating the First Crusade.

In urban areas, however, the intermingling of peoples was too great to allow such a simple rule, and the Cour de la Fond evolved for the resolution of commercial cases and the Cour de la Chaine evolved for the resolution of maritime disputes. In each, a representative of the lord presided over the court as “bailli,” but did not rule on a case. Rather, the case was tried by six jurors drawn from the same class of the parties to the dispute. So, for example, in the Cour de la Chaine, the jurors had to be sailors or merchants. Of these, two were Franks and four natives, a ratio that clearly favored the Franks on a national scale, but may have roughly reflected the composition of urban populations because a large portion of new immigrants were city dwellers, and, correspondingly, a larger portion of the rural population was native.

However, there was an exception to the jurisdiction of these court, which again recognized the diversity of the population: the independent “communes” or urban colonies of the Italian city states were granted the right rule on cases involving their own members in accordance to their own laws and before their own courts. Thus two Venetians would be tried by the laws of Venice, and Pisans by the laws of Pisa etc. Disputes between members of different communes, however, would be tried in the courts of the defendant.

During the first century of the crusader states, however, the communes were a comparatively small minority and the bulk of the Frankish population was drawn from all across Western Europe from Norway to Sicily. These residents of the crusader states were Westerners, whose common language was Latin/French, and making them subject to the local Syrian courts would have been illogical and unacceptable.  Instead, a new court, the Cour des Bourgeois, or Low Court, was created to address criminal and civil cases involving non-noble Franks that did not fall within the jurisdiction of the commercial or maritime courts. Although often translated into English as the Lower Court, the Cour de Bourgeois was the only court for disputes involving burghers or bourgeois residents. The High Court was not an appellate court; it was the court for disputes between members of the First Estate or feudal elite, i.e. knights, nobles, and vassals of the king.  

In the Cour de Bourgeois cases were tried before a “viscount” appointed by the local lord (e.g. the King in royal domains, the Prince of Galilee in Galilee, the Count of Jaffa in Jaffa and Ascalon, the Lord of Oultrejourdain, Ibelin, Sidon etc. in their respective baronies), and twelve jurors. The viscount like the baillis of the other courts did not have a say in the verdict or sentence but was charged with ensuring due process, maintaining order in the courtroom, and enforcing the sentences pronounced by the jurors.

Interestingly, the various Cour de Bourgeois met more regularly than the High Court, presumably because they had more business to conduct given the larger numbers of burgers compared to nobles. Another striking feature of these courts was the right of the litigants to request “counsel” from the court. If requested (and it was highly recommended by the medieval commentators!), the court appointed one of the jurors, who thereafter did not sit in judgement of the case but became an advocate, much like a court-appointed lawyer today. Furthermore, although there was not yet a profession known as “lawyers,” men who gained a reputation for understanding the law were revered and repeatedly appointed either as jurors or counsellors. The names of some have come down to us, such as John d’Ibelin, and Philip of Novare, because they were also legal scholars, who wrote legal tracts about the laws they were interpreting. There was, however, no such thing as the “prosecution.” The state as such had not yet assumed the role of pursuing justice and punishing crime for itself. Instead, someone had to bring a case to trial by accusing another person of a violation of the law. 

Somewhat alienating to modern sensibilities, trial by combat or some other form of “test” (fire or water) were the preferred means of determining guilt and innocence. But this was normal in this period and accepted by litigant and defendant alike. 

Dr. Helena P. Schrader holds a PhD in History.
She is the Chief Editor of the Real Crusades History Blog.
She is an award-winning novelist and author of numerous books both fiction and non-fiction. Her three-part biography of Balian d'Ibelin won a total of 14 literary accolades. Her most recent release is a novel about the founding of the crusader Kingdom of Cyprus. You can find out more at:

Her award-winning novels set in the crusader states attempt to reconstruct society accurately including an accurate portrayal of the legal system.

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Friday, October 13, 2017

Children of the Crusades

Today, on 710th the anniversary of Philip IV's "coup" against the Knights Templar and before readers are totally distracted by "Knightfall", I wanted to reflect on the origins of the great "militant orders" of which the Knights Templar were the most prominent.

The Hospitaller and Templar Churches - side-by-side - in Famagusta, Cyprus
Initially, true to the Word of Christ, the Church of Rome condemned violence of any kind. By the 5th century, however, the Church conceded that there were circumstances under which the use of force – even homicide – was necessary, excusable, and potentially pious. The concept of the “just war” emerged and was recognized theologically by St. Augustine.

Furthermore, the more Islam threatened the Christian world, the more the Church recognized the need for armed men to defend it against armies determined to spread Islam with the sword. (See: Jerusalem Forgotten? The Struggle for Jerusalem Before the First Crusade.) Meanwhile, wherever secular power was weak, the need for men willing to protect clerics, women, and peasants against everything from Vikings to common robbers was equally evident and urgent.

St. George, the Epitome of the Christian Warrior

The fact that the Church drew its leadership from the ruling class – the secular lords with strong military traditions – meant that most clerics in the Middle Ages were themselves imbued with a warrior ethos. This fact is underlined by the number of bishops who donned armor and took active part in warfare — from the Battle of Hastings to the Battle of Crécy. Thus, it is not surprising that by the end of the first Christian millennium, Christianity recognized the need for armed force and men who wielded it, but that did not mean the Church had completely abandoned its principles.
On the contrary, the Church sought repeatedly to restrict, reduce, control, and direct warfare and violence. Violence against churches and clergy was punished with excommunication, for example, and there were frequent clerical diatribes against the vanity, arrogance, and violence of the warrior class. When the Byzantine Emperor appealed to Pope Urban II for aid in fighting the Seljuk Turks and freeing the Holy Land, there is little doubt that Urban II had double motives for calling for a crusade: on the one hand, he wanted to free the Holy Land, but on the other he also wanted to free France and Western Europe from excess numbers of violent young men, trained in the profession of arms, who were too quick to fight each other and prey upon the defenseless.

Pope Urban II Calling for the First Crusade

Balderic, one chronicler of Urban II’s speech calling for the First Crusade, quotes the Pope as saying:

Christian warriors, who continually and vainly seek pretexts for war, rejoice, for you have today found a true pretext. You, who have so often been the terror of your fellow men, go and fight for the deliverance of the holy places. You, who sell for vile pay the strength of your arms to the fury of others, armed with the sword of the Maccabees, go and merit eternal reward …. If you must have blood, bathe in the blood of the infidels …. Soldiers of Hell, become soldiers of the living God!

What is remarkable in retrospect is the extent to which Pope Urban II struck a chord with his audience. Not only did they take the cross in great numbers (and proceed to bathe in the blood of infidels when they reached Jerusalem), but for the next 200 years fighting men flocked to serve Christ, not just in crusades, but as fighting monks bound by monastic vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience.

This was made possible by the creation of new monastic orders that enabled men to be both monks and knights. While members of these orders were expected to abjure all wealth, to attend Mass multiple times a day, to fast, pray, and eat in silence, and to live in controlled communities cut off from the outside world, especially women, members were not required to give up the profession of arms. Rather, these orders were designed to capture the religious zeal of the time and funnel the fervor and energy of fighting men into religious channels.

Before this spirit of militant Christianity had burned itself out, no less than 17 military orders, 8 on the Iberian Peninsula, 2 in what is now Italy, and 2 in German speaking Europe had been founded. The most famous and most powerful militant orders, however, were the Templars and the Hospitallers, both founded in the Holy Land yet international in their structures and membership. 

Dr. Helena P. Schrader holds a PhD in History.
She is the Chief Editor of the Real Crusades History Blog.
She is an award-winning novelist and author of numerous books both fiction and non-fiction. Her three-part biography of Balian d'Ibelin won a total of 14 literary accolades. Her most recent release is a novel about the founding of the crusader Kingdom of Cyprus. You can find out more at:

Starting December 7, Dr. Schrader will be running a series "Ten True Stories of the Knights Templar" in cooperation with +Real Crusades History+ to draw attention to the significant historical role played by the Knights Templar.  The entries will be published the day after each episode of "Knightfall,"  in an effort to counter the misinformation and sensationalism of this TV series. While the Templars were not always well-led and individual members of this Order may have committed crimes, they should not be collectively slandered (as Philip IV and successive generations of charlatans have done) as heretics, sodomites and devil worshipers.

Meanwhile, you might be interested in Schrader's novel which describes in detail the attack on the Knights Templar by Philip IV of France, their defense and final defeat. Although the characters are largely fictional and the "Free Templars" are invented, there are historical hints that suggest at least some Templars fought a "guerrilla" war against the French King for a few years. The book won praise for its nuanced depiction of the effect of torture on the psyche of the victims:

The Militant Orders also play an important role in my award-winning three-part biography of Balian d'Ibelin:

Buy now!                                         Buy now!                                        Buy now!

Friday, October 6, 2017

Surrender of Jerusalem to Saladin in 1187

The Damascus Gate of Jerusalem by which some of Saladin's troops would have entered the city.
On Oct. 2, 1187, the gates of Jerusalem opened to admit Salah ad-Din and his army. The most holy city in Christendom, site of Christ’s passion, had been surrendered to the Muslims after 88 years of Christian rule. The surrender of Jerusalem was the inevitable consequence of the devastating defeat of the feudal forces of the Kingdom of Jerusalem at the Battle of Hattin three months earlier. That battle had left Jerusalem defenseless; all fighting men including the knights of the Temple and the Hospital had been called up to halt the invasion that ended in disaster at Hattin, leaving the city itself denuded of troops. Left behind in Jerusalem were non-combatants: women, children, the old and infirm and the clergy. Furthermore, by the time Jerusalem surrendered, these civilian residents of Jerusalem had been joined by as many as 60,000 to 80,000 refugees from other parts of the Kingdom overrun by Saladin’s troops. An estimated 100,000 Christians were in Jerusalem when it surrendered, predominantly women, children and clergy.

What is remarkable about the surrender of Jerusalem in 1187 was not that it surrendered under the circumstances, but that it did not surrender without a fight. Saladin had offered the inhabitants very generous terms. He said he did not want to risk damage to the holy sites in Jerusalem (as was nearly inevitable in a siege and assault) and therefore offered to let the inhabitants leave peacefully with all their portable goods if they would surrender peacefully. But the anonymous “burgesses” who represented the city of Jerusalem in the absence of any noblemen refused. According to the Old French continuation of the Chronicle of William Tyre (widely believed to be based on first-hand accounts) the “burgesses” replied “if it pleased God they would never surrender the city.” Saladin then offered to leave the city alone for roughly six months if they promised to surrender the city at the end of that time, if no reinforcements had arrived. They still refused, saying again “if it pleased God they would never surrender that city where God had shed His blood for them.” (Tyre, p. 55) This was a clear commitment to martyrdom rather than surrender — perhaps not such a surprising sentiment from a city that at this time must have been dominated by clergy as they would have been the only men of “authority” (read noble birth and education) left in the city.

The "Dome of the Rock" erected over the rock on which Mohammed allegedly ascended into Heaven; it was this monument sacred to Islam that Saladin did not want to risk damaging in a siege and assault.
But Saladin did not enter Jerusalem over the corpses of “martyrs” and their families. He entered it peacefully after a negotiated settlement that ended a week of ferocious fighting.  Ibn al-Athir writes: “Then began the fiercest struggle imaginable; each side looked on the fight as absolute religious obligation. There was no need for a superior authority to drive them on: they restrained the enemy without restraint, and drove them off without being driven off. Every morning the Frankish cavalry made sorties to fight and provoke the enemy to battle; several of both sides fell in these encounters.” (pp. 140-141. 

Imad ad-Din’s report is (as always) even more melodramatic in his description. According to him, “They challenged [us] to combat and barred the pass, they came down into the lists like enemies, they slaughtered and drew blood, they blazed with fury and defended the city, they fumed and burned with wrath, they drove us back…. They fought grimly and struggled with all their energy, descending to the fray with absolute resolution… they blazed and set fire to things…they made themselves a target for arrows and called on death to stand by them.” (p.154) Turning to Christian sources, the source considered by scholars the most authentic claims that: “The Christians sallied forth and fought with the Saracens…. On two or three occasions the Christians pushed the Saracens back to their tents.” (Tyre, p. 56) Women, children and clergy did that? For eight days?

Clearly this was not merely a fanatical but a well-organized defense. Key to that is one man: Balian d’Ibelin. 

Balian, Baron of Ibelin, had been one of only four barons to escape the catastrophe at Hattin. At Hattin he had commanded the third largest contingent of troops after the King and the Count of Tripoli, and he, along with the Templars, had been charged with the thankless and gruesome task of commanding the rear-guard in a situation where it was under near continuous attack while on the march. The Templars suffered enormous losses during this march and we must assume that Ibelin did too. Certainly, when he broke out of the trap at Hattin it was with at most 3,000 infantry and a couple hundred knights. These troops, however, he had led to Tyre. 

His presence in Jerusalem, however, was solitary — the result of a safe-conduct granted him by Saladin so that he could remove his wife and children to safety. The terms of the safe-conduct were that he go to Jerusalem unarmed and remain only one night. On arrival, however, the citizens of Jerusalem and particularly the Patriarch begged him to remain and take command of the defense. This he did, although in so doing he believed he was condemning his wife and children to death.

The inhabitants of Jerusalem and the Patriarch clearly recognized Ibelin’s value. He wasn’t just any baron, he was a man who had played a prominent role in the defeat of Saladin at Montgisard, and had fought at every major battle against Saladin since. Still, he was just one man. He brought not a single additional fighting man to the defense of Jerusalem, and -- on taking stock of what men he had in Jerusalem -- he discovered there was only one other knight in the entire city. This induced him to knight over eighty youths of “good birth,” which was undoubtedly a morale-booster to the individuals honored, but hardly a significant increase in the fighting strength of the defenders!

The Seal of Balian d'Ibelin's son John
So how did Ibelin put up such a ferocious and effective defense with women, children and clergy for 8 days?  We don’t know exactly, however, it is clear Ibelin must have had an exceptional organizational talent and also been a charismatic and inspirational leader. He would have had to organize civilians into improvised units, and then assign these units discrete tasks — whether it was defending a sector of the wall, putting out fires, or ensuring that the men and women doing the fighting were supplied with water, food and ammunition. Most astonishing, his improvised units not only repulsed assaults, they also sortied out several times, destroying some of Saladin’s siege engines, and “two or three times” chasing the Saracens all the way back to the palisades of their camp.

Ibelin must have relied heavily upon women in his defense of Jerusalem. The Old French Continuation of William of Tyre quotes the Patriarch of Jerusalem saying: “For every man that is in this city, there are fifty women and children.” (Tyre, p. 58) Furthermore, we know from sieges only a few decades later in the Languedoc (notably the siege of Toulouse in which Simon de Montfort was killed) that women could be very active in manning the walls. Unlike Victorian women, medieval women were not known for being delicate and prone to swooning. They were partners in crafts and trades, often had their own businesses, and when it came to this siege they understood perfectly what was at stake: their freedom.

Although hard to see in this medieval depiction, the siege engine that fired the fatal shot against Simon de Montfort was allegedly manned by women.
Notably, the Arab sources never acknowledge this simple fact. First of all, their own women were not in a position to contribute to the defense, so women manning siege engines, pouring boiling oil over the ramparts, or even exposing themselves to danger to bring men (strange men not their husbands, brothers or sons) water, food and ammunition was utterly inconceivable to them.  Secondly, it was considered dishonorable to be killed by a woman under any circumstances, so no one wanted to even contemplate this possibility; it would have disgraced the fallen. Instead, the Arab sources explained the surprisingly spirited and tenacious defense of Jerusalem to phantom survivors of Hattin. Imad ad-Din conjures up no less than “70,000 Frankish troops, both swordsmen and archers” (p. 154) — a fantastic figure more than double the total Frankish army deployed (and destroyed) at Hattin!

After five days of futile assaults on the northwest corner of the city from the Gate of St. Stephen to David's Gates, Saladin had nothing but casualties to show for his efforts. He therefore redeployed opposite the northeast corner of the city. More important, he deployed sappers to undermine the walls.  The sappers were protected by heavy wooden roofs and platforms as well as covering fire. Within three days they managed to dig tunnels under the city walls, and on September 29 a segment of the northern wall roughly 30 meters long collapsed. Although the Christians managed to beat-back the initial assaults sent through the breach, by nightfall it was clear that the city was now no longer defensible.

That night, Ibelin led a last desperate sortie out of the Jehosaphat Gate, probably directed at Saladin’s own tent, which had been set up on the Mount of Olives. The sortie was easily repulsed. As dawn broke on September 30, the remaining inhabitants of Jerusalem, residents and refugees alike, were facing almost certain slaughter. Because they had rejected his generous terms earlier, Saladin had sworn before multiple witnesses that he would take the city by force and spare no one.

Nevertheless, under a flag of truce Ibelin sought a parlay with Saladin. The Sultan met with Ibelin outside the walls of the city, but flatly refused to negotiate. He reiterated his intention to take the city by force. Indeed, while Ibelin and Saladin were speaking, the Sultan’s banners were planted on the northeast corner of the city, and Saladin pointed out that no one negotiated for a city he already possessed. Fortunately for the Christians in the city, the Sultan’s banners were tossed down again; Ibelin could retort that Saladin did not yet possess the city. Ibelin then played his only trump. He told Saladin that if the defenders knew they would be granted no mercy, then they would fight all the harder. Not just that, he said, they would slaughter their own families, the Muslim prisoners/slaves inside Jerusalem, and the livestock, and then they would destroy the holy places — including the Rock sacred to Islam — before sallying forth to certain death intent on taking as many of the enemy to their graves with them as possible.

Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives Today; the Dome of the Rock is visible between the trees.
Saladin, who had already made his desire to preserve the holy places known, capitulated in face of this blackmail. After consulting with this emirs, he agreed to spare the lives of the Christians in Jerusalem, but only on the condition that they bought freedom. After much haggling, it was agreed that each man would have to pay 10 dinar, each woman 5 and each child 2. Those that could not pay this ransom would become the property of the Sultan, slaves.

Ibelin protested that the city was full of refugees, who had already lost everything. According to the Old French Continuation of William of Tyre he argued “In a city such as this there are only a few people apart from the burgesses who could manage [the ransom], and for every man who can pay the ransom there are a hundred who could not redeem themselves even for two bezants. For the city is full of ordinary people who have come from the surrounding area for protection.” (p.60)  After considerable haggling, the Sultan agreed to a lump-sum payment of 30,000 bezants for (varying by source) between 7, 000 and 18,000 Christian paupers.

The Medieval Working-Class would have had difficulty paying the ransom set by Saladin. 
These 30,000 bezants were paid by the Hospital with the money deposited by King Henry II of England, but even so when the 40 days granted the Christians to raise their ransoms were up, some 15,000 Christians were unable to pay and condemned to slavery. Ibelin, appalled, offered to stand surety for them while the ransom was raised, but Saladin refused, although he did “give” 1,000 slaves to his brother and 500 each to Balian and the Patriarch of Jerusalem, so that 2,000 souls were freed at the last minute.

Allegedly, some non-Latin Christians also opted to pay the extra taxes imposed on Christians in Muslim states in order to remain in Jerusalem, but there is no indication that the non-Latin Christians undermined the defense of Jerusalem itself. On the contrary, they appear to have contributed substantially to the defense of Jerusalem as long as the fighting was going on. Only after the city became indefensible as a result of the breach in the wall, did they begin to seek a compromise with their assailants — a perfectly comprehensible reaction that does not imply fundamental hostility to the Latin rulers of Jerusalem.

On November 18, 1187, forty days after the surrender of Jerusalem, the Christians departed Jerusalem, leaving the city in Muslim hands. The news of the fall of Jerusalem allegedly killed Pope Urban III and so shocked the Christian kingdoms in the West that it set in motion the Third Crusade.

Dr. Helena P. Schrader holds a PhD in History.
She is the Chief Editor of the Real Crusades History Blog.
She is an award-winning novelist and author of numerous books both fiction and non-fiction. Her three-part biography of Balian d'Ibelin won a total of 14 literary accolades. Her most recent release is a novel about the founding of the crusader Kingdom of Cyprus. You can find out more at:

The siege and surrender of Jerusalem in 1187 is the climax and described in detail in award-winning:

                                                                     Buy now!

Tyre, William (Old French Continuation of). The Conquest of Jerusalem and the Third Crusade, translated  by Peter Edbury, .

Ibn al-Athir. Trans by Francesco Gabrieli, Arab Historians of the Crusades.

Imad ad Din. Trans by Francesco Gabrieli, Arab Historians of the Crusades

Monday, October 2, 2017

Review of "The Last Crusader Kingdom"

A Review by Reuben Steenson for the Online Book Club of
The Last Crusader Kingdom
by Helena P. Schrader 

Having reached the 30-page mark of The Last Crusader Kingdom by Helena P. Schrader, I knew I was hooked. With a few deft strokes, the main characters were expertly created and I wanted (no, needed) to know what would happen to them. My interest did not diminish across the 350+ pages, as the plot gathered in complexity and further intriguing characters were added to the mix. Because of its readability, the impressive quality of its research, its flawless editing, and its simple, engaging style I rate The Last Crusader Kingdom 4 out of 4 stars.
The main plot focuses on Aimery de Lusignan as he travels to Cyprus in the 12th century in an attempt to establish control of the island. I have always been interested in the medieval crusades, but knew very little about the time period (beyond having read Ivanhoe by Walter Scott and picked up various scraps from films). After reading this novel, I am keen to find out more, as Schrader brought the period to life and navigated her way through a confusing and tumultuous era with aplomb.

Certainly, I was impressed by the manner in which Schrader was able to fill the reader in with the necessary context without it ever seeming obtrusive or exterior to the plot. All of the rich detail was cunningly wrapped up in the action of the novel. Schrader's passion for history comes across in her ability to render historical events in an exciting and accessible manner. Her credentials are undeniable: she has a PhD in history and a string of fiction and non-fiction books under her belt. This experience is apparent in The Last Crusader Kingdom, which is an assured and perfectly executed historical novel.

I really enjoyed the introductory essay, in which Schrader explains her thesis based on original research and outlines exactly where her plot sticks to known historical fact and where she makes use of creative license. Even at this stage I was keen to read on, as the introduction did not read like a dry historical treatise, but as a persuasive and thrilling journey alongside Schrader as she uncovered new evidence and presented novel theories. This essay is supplemented by maps, a character list, historical notes and a glossary.

Beyond the authenticity of the story, Schrader excels in telling an interesting tale, and particularly in presenting relationships of all types. She explores family loyalties, power struggles, and the relationship between the church and the state, as well as capturing something of the ferment of the medieval Mediterranean - a real melting pot of languages, religions and social classes. I loved the way Schrader could portray the motivations and thoughts of a variety of (often antagonistic) characters with fairness and balance.

The characters which I grew most attached to were Maria Comnena, a wise and fiesty noblewoman, and John d'Ibelin, squire to Aimery, who matures and develops throughout the novel to reach manhood and knighthood. Each character was distinct and well-drawn, which was the main strength of this book for me. One of the main protagonists, Balian d'Ibelin (John's father) is the subject of a previous trilogy of novels by Schrader - a fact I only learned after reading The Last Crusader Kingdom. Prior knowledge of these is not needed, however: this definitely works as a stand-alone novel in its own right.

Lastly, Schrader's style was another strong point. She writes in a straightforward and unpretentious manner and yet manages to create vivid, believable scenes and an exciting plot. Her descriptions were economical yet entirely apt, and I found it easy to visualise each location. I highly recommend this book to any fans of historical fiction, as it is an outstanding book of its type. Schrader's knowledgeability, insight into human character, and pleasing narrative style all add up to a really great read. I definitely plan to read further novels by Schrader in the near future!

Friday, September 29, 2017

Dragomen, Scribes and Ra’is: The Administrative Backbone of a Kingdom

Battles may win (and lose) kingdoms, but no kingdom can survive without an administrative apparatus that ensures taxes and customs dues are collected, coins are minted, weights and measures standardized, borders controlled, trade fostered, resources regulated, laws enforced and criminals brought to justice. Today I take a closer look at some of the unseen but vital servants of "good governance" in the crusader states.

The construction of great cities and a flourishing in crafts, industry and art is rarely (if ever) possible without a sophisticated administrative structure that allow raw materials materials and labor to be obtained, transported, and paid for, for example. Feudal kingdoms were no exception, and the twelfth and thirteen centuries were periods in which stronger, more centralized governments with more sophisticated royal administration were evolving in both England and France. 

In Western Europe the rise of centralized government generally entailed a strengthening of the crown at the expense of the feudal vassals. (Although Magna Charta and the Oxford Provisions provide examples of how the tensions between crown and vassals could be used to strengthen institutions of consultative government.) Because the Kingdom of Jerusalem in the twelfth century was characterized by absentee kings (two in succession never once set foot in their kingdom) and strong, independent barons, it is often assumed that the Kingdom of Jerusalem lacked sophisticated administration.

In fact, nothing could be farther from the truth. 

It could, indeed, be argued that the baronial movement, which successfully fought off all attempts by the Holy Roman Emperor to impose autocratic Imperial government, was only possible because the administrative apparatus in the Kingdom of Jerusalem was so sophisticated. How else could barons holding fiefs in two different kingdoms have had the time to engage in a protracted struggle with their overlord, defend their fiefs against the enemy, take part in crusades, and still find time to write legal tracts and other scholarly works? The mere fact of being dependent on income from two geographically dispersed kingdoms, made it essential for the leading men of the kingdom to have institutionalized deputies capable of acting in their absence and in their interests. Furthermore, warfare is expensive, and so impossible at a national -- or baronial -- level without a means of maintaining sources of income. 

Giving credit where it is due: the Franks possessed such sophisticated means of raising money and administering their fiefs as absentee landlords largely because they were able to take over existing structures left to them by their Arab and Greek predecessors. The Holy Land had, after all, been administrated by the ultimate bureaucracy, the Byzantine Empire, for over three hundred years! Arguably, few of the institutions that served the crusader states so well were their own, but the Franks must be given credit for adapting the legacy of the predecessors to their needs so effectively. 

Turning first to the sources of income, the Franks like their predecessors enriched their treasury by the following means:

·       Rents on land, i.e. tenant farmers paying to the lord rent for the right to work the land and retain three-quarters to two-thirds of the harvest;

·       Mills for grinding grain into flower;

·       Olive and wine presses;

·       Sugar factories;

·       Ovens (which were usually communal as it took a great deal of wood to heat one and it was more efficient to do this for large quantities of bread;

·       Taxes on garden produce and orchards;

·       Bath-houses;

·       Tolls on roads and at gates;

·       Import and export duties at the ports;

·       Anchorage and harbor fees;

·       Rights of salvage;

·       Rents for store-frontage;

·       Fees assessed by the courts on people found guilty of crimes and misdemeanors;

·       And more.

As this list demonstrates, there were many more ways of making money than “taxing peasants,” and rents of one quarter to one third of the harvest (or the monetary equivalent) was not excessive, particularly since it was not the practice in Outremer to require labor on the lord’s own domain as in the West. Merchants bore a higher burden ― and could well afford to because they were making money hand over fist selling high-value, luxury products like spices, silk, ivory, pharmaceuticals, glass, sugar, wine and olive-oil in the markets of the West at many times the cost for those products in Outremer.

To collect all those revenues, however, the kings and their vassals required a veritable army of lessor officials, who represented them, enforced their laws, and collected their fees, duties and taxes.

At the village level there was a local and resident “Head Man” known as the ra’is (also rays). He was a tenant, usually with a bigger house and somewhat more profitable land, e.g. olive orchards or vineyards, and he spoke the same language and shared the religion of the other inhabitants of the village because he was the descendant of the ra’is, who had been there before the Franks came. In new Frankish settlements, the function of the ra’is was performed by the lord’s agent, referred to variously as dispensator or locator.  The ra’is was an intermediary between the lord and his tenants and represented the interests of the community to the lord.

On the other side the lord employed a dragoman and a scribe to represent his interests and enforce his laws in the community. The dragoman was similar to the English sheriff or modern police chief, responsible for law and order, capturing outlaws/criminals, and carrying out the sentence of the responsible court. The scribe, far from being a mere note-taker, was responsible for collecting taxes, rents, duties etc. and recording their collection so that no one could be taxed twice etc. Both of these positions were usually held by Franks of the “sergeant” class (free burghers), but there are records of natives holding these offices. Since many native Christians at this time spoke Arabic and used Arabic names, however, we cannot know if the individuals entrusted with these important offices were Muslim, Orthodox Christians or converts to Catholicism. Notably, these men of the sergeant class also clearly needed to be literate to carry out their duties.

In addition to these officers who lived in the domain or territory (some scribes and dragomen served multiple villages) for which they were responsible, the king and the greater lords had household officials, who managed their affairs centrally. These officials oversaw the dragomen and scribes, kept central records, and the lord’s treasury. Various titles were used but common terms were “chancellors” for keeping charters and legal records, seneschals for maintaining financial records (CFO), and constables for military affairs assisted by the marshal for maintaining the vital horses. 

Finally, in the urban centers and ports, there large customs houses staffed by a bevy of customs officials who kept an eye and records of all the ships and their cargoes moving in and out of the port. There were customs officials at the gates to the city as well. Other officials were responsible for monitoring and checking on the weights and measures used in the markets. Others oversaw the removal of refuse and the rules of the wells, bakeries, and bath-houses. There were men who patrolled the streets to keep order, especially at night. All of these individuals were part of the sophisticated administrative system which enabled the Kingdom of Jerusalem to survive -- and relied heavily on the support of the native Christians, who had the greatest institutional memory. They are indicative of a well-functioning state, and particularly impressive when one considers just how weak the crown was in light of its near perpetual absenteeism.

Recommended Reading: Riley Smith, Jonathan, The Feudal Nobility and the Kingdom of Jerusalem 1174 – 1277, MacMillan, 1973.

Dr. Helena P. Schrader holds a PhD in History.
She is the Chief Editor of the Real Crusades History Blog.
She is an award-winning novelist and author of numerous books both fiction and non-fiction. Her three-part biography of Balian d'Ibelin won a total of 14 literary accolades. Her most recent release is a novel about the founding of the crusader Kingdom of Cyprus. You can find out more at:

The complexity of life in the crusader states is reflected in the award-winning Jerusalem Trilogy: 

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