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Friday, May 19, 2017

The Conquest of Cyprus: Chance and Passion

"Aphrodite's Birthplace" on the Coast of Cyprus, Photo by HPSchrader
The last and most enduring of the crusader states was established on the island of Cyprus at the end of the 12th century. It lasted for over 300 years, thriving long after the Kingdom of Jerusalem had disappeared from the political map, if not memory. How that crusader state came into being is a dramatic story that began with a chance conquest by one of the most charismatic of all crusaders: Richard the Lionheart.

Richard's Tomb at the Abbey of Fontevrault

After a tempestuous winter on Sicily, the men of the Third Crusade led by the Kings of England and France were ready to sail for the Holy Land. The kings, however, had quarreled with one another and so departed separately. Philip II departed with his contingent of crusaders on March 30. He arrived off Tyre without incident three weeks later on April 20.

Richard was not so lucky. His fleet of a hundred ships did not set sail until April 10 — and almost immediately encountered a vicious storm. The fleet was scattered as the vessels, some large, some small, some oared and some pure sailing ships, each struggled to survive as best they could.  Richard’s galley with a rump of the fleet eventually made safe harbor on the island of Rhodes on April 22, but the ship carrying his betrothed, Princess Berengaria of Navarre, and his sister Joanna, the widowed Queen of Sicily, was missing.  

For the next ten days, Richard remained at Rhodes while ships were dispatched to try to round-up the stragglers, and the surviving ships were made seaworthy again.   On May 1, with the ships he had collected, Richard set out in search of his lost vessels and his bride. He made for Cyprus, the largest of the islands in the eastern Mediterranean. His hope was that many of his missing ships, including the one with his bride and sister, might have found refuge there.

And indeed they had! But their reception had been far from welcoming. Rather than receiving the charity expected from a Christian monarch (Cyprus was ruled at this time by a self-styled Byzantine “Emperor”), the crews of three ships wrecked on the coast of the island were –- in Richard’s own words –- “robbed and despoiled.”  The ship carrying the royal ladies had avoided shipwreck, but in a state of distress had taken refuge in the harbor of Limassol.  The knights aboard this vessel somehow received word of what had happened to their comrades, and Joanna of Plantagenet (a woman who deserves a bookof her own!) was clearly not buying the assurances offered by “Emperor” Isaac Comnenus about her safety if she came ashore.  She smelt a rat and stayed aboard her damaged vessel.

Thus when Richard sailed into Limassol harbor on the evening of May 5, he found his bride-to-be and sister in a precarious situation aboard an unseaworthy vessel running out of water, but afraid of being held for ransom or worse if they went ashore.  Richard at once sent an envoy to Isaac Comnenus requesting that his men be set free, compensation paid for the property seized (from the wrecks), and permission to come ashore for water and provisions. According to all contemporary accounts, the envoy returned with a very rude reply.

Richard responded as could only be expected of the proud Plantagenet: he attacked.

The exact sequence of events varies according to which chronicle one follows.  One version has Richard ordering his galleys to break through a blockade of ships at the mouth of Limassol harbor and then storming ashore on foot.  Another version claims he landed on a beach beyond Limassol harbor against opposition, and then took Limassol from landward. Either action (and the later appears the most likely) was extremely risky.

Indeed, an amphibious operation from small ships and boats against a defended shore is one of the most dangerous in warfare. Period. Think of the beaches of Normandy — and Gallipoli. Unlike the Allies on D-Day in WWII, Richard did not have protective fire from big battle ships hammering the shore with shells. Instead, Richard had to rely upon covering fire from cross-bow men kneeling or sitting on boats bobbing up and down in the waves — not a good platform for accurate fire with any kind of small arm, let alone a bow and arrow! The enemy archers, in contrast, would have been firing their bows from solid earth. Furthermore, as Richard and his men approached the shore, he had to jump overboard into the sucking surf not in combat boots but chainmail leggings. He then had to fight his way up the rolling stones of the beach in the face of both enemy fire and attacks. To put it simply: the fact that Richard pulled this off is remarkable and unquestionably heroic.

He was helped, however, by the fact that his opponent was highly unpopular with his own subjects and relying primarily upon mercenaries. 

Cyprus, an integral part of the early Byzantine Empire, had become a target for expanding Islam in the mid-7th century. Although it was not conquered and incorporated into the Muslim world, it was partially occupied, frequently raided, and forced to pay tribute to various Muslim overlords until 965, when Constantinople re-established control of the island. The three hundred years of turmoil had made it poor, and it remained a Byzantine back-water until the establishment of the crusader states following the First Crusade. Thereafter, Cyprus benefitted from the flood of Western pilgrims heading to the Holy Land, and prospered from trade with the booming cities of the Levant. In 1126, the Venetians obtained trading concessions on the island, and contributed to its commercial revival. After the death of Manuel I Comnenus, however, Constantinople drifted into chaos as first his son was murdered and then his son’s murderer was torn to pieces by a mob. Constantinople was too pre-occupied with this succession crisis to pay any attention to Cyprus, and into the vacuum stepped Isaac Comnenus. 

A Portrait of Isaac's Great Uncle Manuel I
Isaac, a member of the Imperial family (a great-nephew of Emperor Manuel I), who had previously been governor of Byzantine Cilicia, arrived on Cyprus in 1182 or 1183, claiming to have been appointed governor.  Some sources claim his letters of appointment were forged, but it is also possible he was indeed legitimately appointed by Manuel I’s son Alexus II or the latter’s mother and regent, Maria of Antioch. In any case, when Alexis II and Maria of Antioch were murdered and Andronicus Comnenus became Emperor in Constantinople, Isaac rebelled against Andronicus. He thereafter claimed Cyprus as his personal domain. Andronicus didn’t take this sitting down. He prepared a fleet to reclaim the island for Cyprus. Isaac responded by forging an alliance with Sicily, which sent a fleet. In a naval engagement, the Sicilians fighting for Isaac defeated the Byzantine fleet. By the time Richard of England arrived in 1191, Isaac had been in effective control of Cyprus for roughly 8 years. In that short space of time, however, he had so ruthlessly exploited, taxed and terrorized his subjects that they did not want to fight — much less die — for him. Lack of morale on the part of Isaac’s forces enabled Richard to successfully land his forces.

Nevertheless, although Richard had taken the beach and then the city of Limasol, Isaac Comnenus still had his army largely intact. He had simply withdrawn with the bulk of his troops farther inland. This situation was obviously precarious, and Richard knew he had to eliminate this latent threat. So he off-loaded some of his warhorses, exercised them through the night so they could get back their land-legs, and then attacked Isaac Comnenus’ army at dawn the next day. The location is sometimes identified as Kolossi, the later site of a lovely Hospitaller commandery.

The Hospitaller Commandery at Kolossi as it looks today. (Photo by the author)

Richard’s early morning attack allegedly caused panic among the self-styled Emperor’s forces. Isaac Comnenus took flight again, and Richard’s men overran the enemy camp, capturing huge quantities of booty without casualties.  As at the earlier engagement, the self-styled “Emperor” had little support among the population or his mercenaries.  

Richard returned to Limassol and on May 12. Lent now being over, he married Berengaria and had her crowded Queen of England. The exact location is unknown, and several churches in Limassol claim the honor.

These churches for the Hospital (left) and Temple (right) were build much later but incorporate many features typical of church architecture on the island. (Photo by the author)

At this point, Richard was still in a hurry to get to the Kingdom of Jerusalem. The crusader kingdom was in desperate straits, having been reduced to the city of Tyre after the defeat at Hattin.  Richard had taken the cross three and a half years earlier, and all sources attest to his burning and sincere desire to recapture Jerusalem from the Saracens. That it had taken him so long to get this far was more a function of prudent preparation and bitter politics than to lack of ardor. The urgency to continue now, however, was increased by the fact that his hated rival, Philip II of France, had already joined the Christian siege of Muslim-held Acre with his large contingent of troops.  Richard had every reason to expect these massive reinforcements of the Christian army would tip the scales and lead to the capture of Acre; Richard had no desire to see Philip take all the glory for a victory of this magnitude.

As a result, Richard accepted Isaac Comnenus’ surrender on comparatively mild terms. He made no claim to Cyprus at this point. He simply demanded reparations from Isaac’s treasury (a welcome infusion of cash to Richard’s war chest so he could finance his crusade for Jerusalem) and, significantly, 100 knights, 500 light cavalry, and 500 foot soldiers for the crusade as well. Isaac was to accompany Richard on the crusade, surrender his only child as a hostage of his good will, and place his castles under the control of Richard’s lieutenants.

The Castle of Kantara, Cyprus (Photo by the author)

The terms were undoubtedly humiliating for a self-styled “emperor,” but they were a far cry from “unconditional surrender.” Nor did they constitute the conquest or confiscation of the island.  Instead, they were clearly intended to bolster Richard’s ability to re-capture Jerusalem. Richard had not lost sight of his primary goal, and had Isaac complied with the terms of the agreement the last crusader kingdom might never have come into being.

But Isaac Comnenus reneged.  That same night he fled inland. On the sharp and narrow ridge that ran roughly east-west like a backbone through the island stood three impregnable castles. These offered refuge and defiance. Isaac was clearly not about to become a crusader, and was banking instead upon Richard being in too much of a hurry to get to Acre to come after him.  

The Ruins of St. Hilarion Castle, Cyprus (Photo by the author)

Richard had to choose between letting him get away with this treachery and hurrying to join the siege of Acre, or trying to take control of the entire island by force. Up to now, Richard had responded to unexpected developments, taking advantage of a situation that presented itself to him. What followed was far more calculating. Read more next week.

Richard is a character in the third book of the Jerusalem Trilogy:

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Friday, May 12, 2017

Settlers and Sergeants

 “The Italian and the Frenchman of yesterday have been transplanted…We have already forgotten the land of our birth; who now remembers it? Men no longer speak of it…Every day relatives and friends…come to join us. They do not hesitate to leave everything they have behind them. Indeed…he who was poor attains riches here. He who had no more than a few pennies finds himself in possession of a fortune.”

A description of the United States in the late 19th Century? No, the Kingdom of Jerusalem in 1125.

Long before the discovery of the “New World,” before the rise from rags-to-riches became known as “the American dream,” and before the Statue of Liberty became of symbol of the United States, the crusader states welcomed immigrants and drew ambitious young men like a beacon.

Obviously, there were huge differences. The crusader states were carved out of territory that had been inhabited by great civilizations for longer than we have written records. The crusaders did not come to a “new” world, but rather occupied a biblical one—literally. Yet the “land of milk and honey” that the crusaders inhabited was not so densely populated that it could not accommodate immigrants. On the contrary, while always a minority, within less than 100 years the immigrant population (first and second generations) made up roughly 20% of the total population. More importantly, the immigrants had contributed greatly to a renaissance in agricultural production and to an economic boom. More land had been brought under cultivation, new settlements had been established, abandoned cities brought back to life and sleepy coastal ports turned into flourishing metropolises.

All that was possible because the crusader states offered immigrants opportunities they did not have at home—not on the same scale or in the same way as America would 600 years later—but in the context of the 12th century. For a start, the immigrants to the crusader states were by definition all freemen. Serfs could not leave their land and could not go on a pilgrimage half-way across the known world. Thus all the men and women who went to the crusader states were free before they left, and if they stayed in the crusader states they enjoyed the status of “burghers” regardless of whether they lived in urban or rural communities.

Archaeological evidence has revealed that contrary to earlier assumptions, during the first roughly one hundred years of crusader rule (i.e. before the Battle of Hattin and Saladin’s invasion), a large number of new settlers lived in agricultural communities, often new towns created by them. As tenants to the feudal and ecclesiastical elites of the kingdom, they owed sometimes as little as one quarter of their produce (or the monetary equivalent) to the lord. The fertility of the land combined with the high value of the products (olive oil, wine, citrus fruits, honey, nuts etc.) ensured that with good management they could be quite prosperous. 

Many other pilgrims of the working-class, however, would have lived not from agriculture as tenants, but rather as tradesmen and craftsmen: butchers, bakers and candlestick makers, blacksmiths and goldsmiths, cobblers and tailors, coopers and carpenters, weavers and dyers, not to mention inn-keepers and tavern owners, teamsters and stable masters. Men plying these trades were needed not only in the large urban areas but in the smaller provincial towns as well.

Together the free farmers and the tradesmen/craftsmen made up a distinct class of society known as the “sergeant class.” As such, they provided the infantry for fighting forces of the crusader states. Infantry, while often overlooked in histories, was vital, indeed indispensable, to the armies of this period. They provided a shield around the vulnerable horses of the knights enabling the knights to retain their mobility until the moment for a charge came. Equally important was the role of the infantry as garrison troops in the defense of fixed positions. Warfare in this period required walled strong points, whether castles or cities, to be sufficiently well-defended to hold off assaults and siege sometimes for weeks or months on end. Every castle and city needed fighting men capable of repelling assaults to man the walls long enough for a relief force to come to the city’s aid. The bulk of those fighting men came from the “sergeant class.”

Meanwhile, the merchant classes in the crusader states also enjoyed an exceptional degree of prosperity and status. This was because the Italian city states had provided the naval power necessary to expand crusader control. With the help of Genoese, Pisan and Venetian fleets, the crusaders had spread out from isolated inland cities (Jerusalem, Antioch and Edessa) to claim hold of the entire coastline of the Levant. The capture of key coastal cities such as Acre, Tyre, Tripoli and Beirut had only been possible because of the naval blockades set up by the Italian fleets while the Frankish (crusader) armies besieged or assaulted these cities by land. The financially savvy Italian city-states had, however, lent their fighting ships to the crusader cause in exchange for trading privileges in the cities they helped capture. The communes they established in these crusader cities not only enjoyed valuable monopolies on trade, they were also largely autonomous, governing their affairs with little interference from their nominal feudal overlords. In war, these merchant communities likewise provided troops, albeit often mercenaries hired by the wealthy communes, and, of course, naval power.

The large and prominent role played by sergeants/burghers, and merchants in the economy and defense of the crusader states are two features that made Outremer significantly different from the Western European societies of the period.

Men of the sergeant class play significant roles in all three books of the Jerusalem Trilogy.

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Thursday, May 4, 2017

The Wives of King Amalric I -- Rivals Through History

Bernard Hamilton (“Women in the Crusader States: Queens of Jerusalem 1000 - 1190” published in Medieval Women, ed. Derek Baker, Basel Blackwell, Oxford, 1978), argues that Baldwin IV's mother, Agnes de Courtney, had the “misfortune” to have “bad relations to the press.”  He notes that “all contemporary sources are hostile to her”, but argues that that “her influence was not as baneful as the Ibelins and the Archbishop of Tyre would like posterity to presume.” He then goes on to describe Agnes’ rival, Maria Comnena, as “a ruthless and scheming woman.” Now Bernard Hamilton is a noted historian, but my father taught me to judge a person by his/her deeds — not by what others said about them.

Sybilla of Jerusalem as portrayed in the film "Kingdom of Heaven"

So let us look at the record, not the reputation, of the wives of Amalric I of Jerusalem: Agnes de Courtney and Maria Comnena.

Agnes de Courtney was, according to Malcolm Barber, betrothed to Hugh d’Ibelin, but instead married Prince (later King) Amalric of Jerusalem. Whether she did this voluntarily is not recorded. She might have been seduced or abducted, or she might also have been very happy to give up the comparatively obscure and unimportant Hugh in favor of the heir apparent to the throne.  Whatever her motives at the time of her marriage, when Baldwin III died childless, the High Court of Jerusalem had such strong objections to Agnes that they refused to acknowledge Amalric as King of Jerusalem unless he set Agnes aside.

Why, we do not know. There was the issue of being married within the prohibited degrees on consanguinity, and the issue of the pre-contract with Hugh d’Ibelin, both of which were canonical grounds for divorce.  However, the objections of the High Court are not likely to have been legalistic in view of the fact that the High Court explicitly recognized Amalric’s children by Agnes as legitimate.  This strongly suggests that the High Court was not uneasy about the legality of Amalric’s marriage but about the character of his wife. Perhaps it was simply the fact that she was a powerful woman, or a notoriously grasping one, or perhaps, as the Chronicle of Ernoul suggests, she was seen as insufficiently virtuous for such an elevated position as queen in the Holy City. Such speculation is beside the point; the naked fact is that Agnes was found unsuitable for a crown by the majority of the High Court. That’s a pretty damning sentence even without knowing the reason, and that’s not just a matter of “bad press.”

The City of Jerusalem
Agnes then married (or returned to) her betrothed, Hugh d’Ibelin, and, when he died, married yet a third time. Until the death of King Amalric, she had no contact with her children by him, and even after Amalric’s death, during her son Baldwin’s minority, she appears to have been excluded from the court. Then in 1176, Baldwin IV took the reins of government for himself and invited his mother to his court. Within a few short years, Agnes de Courtney had succeeded in foisting her candidates for Seneschal, Patriarch and Constable upon her young and dying son. These were respectively: 1) her utterly underwhelming brother, Joceyln of Edessa, 2) the controversial figure Heraclius, who may not have been as bad as his rival William of Tyre claims and may not have been Agnes lover as the Chronicle of Ernoul claim, but hardly distinguished himself either, and finally an obscure Frenchmen, also alleged to have been Agnes’ lover, Aimery de Lusignan. Not a terribly impressive record for “wise” appointments – even if Aimery de Lusignan eventually proved to be an able man.

Hamilton next applauds Agnes “cleverness” in marrying both heirs to the throne, her daughter Sibylla and her step-daughter Isabella (Maria Comnena’s daughter), to “men of her choosing.” We are talking here about Guy de Lusignan and Humphrey de Toron respectively. The latter was a man of “learning,” who distinguished himself by cravenly vowing allegiance to the former after Guy seized power in a coup d’etat that completely ignored the constitutional right of the High Court of Jerusalem to select the monarch, and then promptly got himself captured at Hattin. Although Humphrey lived a comparatively long life and held an important barony, he apparently never played a positive role in the history of the kingdom. Not exactly a brilliant match or a wise choice for the future Queen of Jerusalem.

Agnes’ other choice, the man she chose for her own daughter according to Hamilton, was even more disastrous. At best, Guy de Lusignan was freshly come from France, young, inexperienced and utterly ignorant about the situation in the crusader kingdoms.  At worst he was not only ignorant but arrogant and a murderer as well: he allegedly stabbed the unarmed and unarmored Earl of Salisbury in the back, while the latter was escorting Queen Eleanor of England across her French territories. He certainly alienated his brother-in-law King Baldwin IV within a short space of time, and he never enjoyed the confidence of the barons of Jerusalem. This is not a matter of “hostile sources” just the historical record that tells us the dying king preferred to drag his decaying body around in a litter -- and his barons preferred to follow a leper – than trust Guy de Lusignan with command of the army.

Nor was this mistrust of the baronage in Lusignan misplaced. When Sibylla crowned her husband king and all the barons but Tripoli grudgingly accepted him, he led them to the avoidable disaster at Hattin. In short, Agnes de Courtney’s interference in the affairs of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, led directly to the loss of the entire Kingdom.

In contrast, there is only one known instance of Maria Comnena actively intervening in the affairs of the Kingdom. This was when she pressured (or “browbeat” according to Hamilton) her daughter Isabella into assenting to the annulment of her marriage with unimpressive and militarily useless Humphrey de Toron in order to marry the man who had just salvaged the last remaining free city in the Kingdom of Jerusalem from destruction. Hamilton portrays this as an act of unbridled, sinister power-seeking on the part of Maria.  Why Agnes’ five appointments should be “clever” (despite the disastrous consequences) but Maria’s effort to rescue the kingdom from the appalling and patently destructive leadership of King Guy should be seen as “power-hungry”  is baffling. It is certainly not an objective assessment of the behavior of the two women.

True, Isabella appears to have become fond of Humphrey de Toron, but she was the heir to the throne and princesses do not marry where their hearts lead but rather for the sake of the kingdom. To an objective observer, forcing an eight year old girl to marry a total stranger is considerably more manipulative and inhumane then for the a mother of a 17 year old princess to put pressure on her teenage daughter to put the interests of the kingdom ahead of her personal preferences. 

To make matters worse, Hamilton reports – with apparent approval! – that Agnes prevented the child Isabella from visiting her mother, effectively imprisoning her in her castle at Kerak from the age of 8 to the age of 11, a period in which, incidentally, Kerak was besieged by Saladin. In short, Agnes was hardly keeping Isabella “safe” – she may even have been courting her capture and death to ensure there was no rival to her own daughter for the throne.  But as that is speculation, I will leave motives aside and focus on the fact that she keep a little girl imprisoned in an exposed castle, denying her the right to even visit her mother.

In short, Hamilton suggests it is legitimate – indeed clever -- to separate an eight year old from her mother and step-father and expose her to danger, but it is devious and self-serving when the mother of a seventeen year old persuades her to set aside the husband forced on her as a child. That’s a warped view of affairs in my opinion.

The English chroniclers and Hamilton attribute to Maria evil motives and accuse her of “scheming” and deviousness without bringing forth a single example to support these allegations – aside from the above instance of pressuring her daughter into an unwanted divorce. In her one recorded act of “interference” she induced her daughter to marry not some adventurer, who would lose the kingdom, but the only man the barons of Jerusalem were willing to rally around after the disaster of Hattin. Her choice for her daughter was a proven military commander, who had just rescued Tyre from falling to Saladin. So even if her “interference” was as selfish and self-seeking as Hamilton implies, it was considerably wiser than Agnes’ choice of Guy de Lusignan.

A 19th Century depiction of a Byzantine Queen

After this one act, although her daughter was queen of Jerusalem from 1192 to 1205 and Maria herself did not die until 1217, there is not a single instance of her “interfering” in the affairs of the Kingdom again – very odd behavior for Hamilton’s unscrupulous, devious and power-hungry woman.  In short, not a single fact supports the allegations against her.

Even taking into account how historians love revisionism, an objective observer ought to recognize that the contemporary sources favorable to Maria may indeed have had justification -- and those hostile to Agnes de Courtney were probably just as right. It’s time modern historians stopped slandering Maria Comnena just for the sake of re-writing history.

Both Agnes de Courtenay and Maria Comnena are characters in my three part biographical novel of Balian d’Ibelin. Read more in:

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Monday, May 1, 2017

REVIEW: "Crusader Archaeology: The Material Culture of the Latin East" by Adrian J. Boas

At the start of each month + Real Crusades History + brings you a review of a book relevant to the crusades or the crusader states. Whereas in centuries past our understanding of the crusades was largely based on written records of the period, modern archaeology increasingly provides hard evidence of crusader lifestyle that challenges or refutes many common assumptions. Today we look at an excellent summary of some of the most important evidence uncovered by archaeologists and art historians.  

Crusader Archaeology: The Material Culture of the Latin East by Adrian J. Boas is a well-organized and comprehensive summary of key archaeological finds from the crusader period in the Holy Land. It provides the layman with an overview of the archaeological evidence from the crusader states uncovered to date and the bibliography provides the reader with a large number of sources that can be consulted for greater detail about any specific topic. Boas writes in a fluid and clear style that makes his often highly specialized subject matter comprehensible even for those not familiar with archeological and architectural jargon. This is a good starting point for anyone interested in the archeology of the crusader states.

As Boas demonstrates, modern archeology increasingly provides evidence to challenge many presumptions and prejudices about crusader “barbarity” — or decadence. The exquisite quality of crusader sculpture, frescoes, manuscripts, and glass-work, the evidence of glass-panes in sacred and secular buildings, the bright and wide-range of colors of the textiles, paintings and glass are all evidence of a culture that was anything but primitive. Equally important, the artifacts that have come to light demonstrate the unique and distinctive nature of crusader arts, crafts and, indeed, lifestyle. As Boas underlines with respect to a variety of fields, far from simply adopting the allegedly more civilized life-style of their enemies or predecessors, the crusaders blended familiar styles, particularly Romanesque art and architecture, with Byzantine traditions in mosaics, wall-painting and sculpture. On a more mundane level, textiles in the crusader states were not simply made of the wide range of materials from goat’s and sheep’s wool and linen to cotton and silk, they also included hybrid fabrics using silk and one of the other kinds of thread. 

For the historical novelist, this is a gold-mine of useful information! Boas provides photos, sketches and descriptions that enable a novelist to picture the rural and urban dwellings of both rich and poor.  His descriptions and photos of objections in daily use such as pottery, lamps, and textiles are equally valuable. The book is also filled with gems of information which can be used to give a novel greater color — such as the street in Jerusalem known as the “Street of Evil Cooking,” which was lined with the crusader equivalent of “fast-food” stands catering to pilgrims. Now that’s the kind of fact that any novelist can use to enliven a description of the Holy City in the age of the Leper King!

Dr Helena P. Schrader holds a PhD in History.
She is the Chief Editor of the Real Crusades History Blog.
She is the author of numerous books both fiction and non-fiction, including a three-part biography of Balian d'Ibelin.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Squires: the Invisible Component in Medieval Armies

Everyone vaguely familiar with the Middle Ages has heard of them, but very few people appreciate  just how essential "squires" were to medieval warfare. Squires were, in fact, quite simply indispensable because, in the military context, the term “knight” did not refer to a single individual but to a fighting unit composed of a knight and at least one destrier (warhorse), palfrey (riding horse), pack horse and squire. Wealthier knights could afford two or more of each (or all) of these supporting elements. Yet while most people understand that a knight was without a horse lost his utility on the battlefield, the importance of squires is often overlooked. Today I’d like to redress that.

A Knight and his Squire from a German Medieval Manuscript
The problem starts with the definition of the word “squire.” Long after squires had lost their utility and role on the battlefield, the term came to mean much the same thing as “gentleman.” It was used simply to refer to rural landowners who were neither knighted nor noble. With more time, it became nothing more than a title of respect, applied to magistrates and justices and the like.

Understanding the role of medieval squires is further complicated by the fact that it was not constant. Rather — like the definition and role of knights themselves — it changed over time and across geography. Thus, while the notion of a young man of noble birth serving in the household of another (usually related) nobleman is the most familiar face of the medieval squire today, in fact, in the 11th and 12th century squires were often waged servants of unspecified heritage.

In short, the term does not describe a clear and distinct class of medieval society, but rather a function or a job that might be performed by a duke’s son or a hired man of low birth. Furthermore, there was nothing automatic about a squire moving from his position/status to that of knighthood. A squire who lacked sufficient means to support himself even as a bachelor knight, or who had no prospect of being retained by a wealthier lord, might remain a squire all his life. Another example of this lack of promotion prospects were the squires of the Templars. They were quite simply hired men, who did not take Templar vows and were not subject to the Templar Rule. They could not become Templar knights unless or until two prerequisites were met: 1) they had been knighted, and 2) they had taken vows and been admitted to the Order.

Nor should we forget that squires performed a variety of functions not related to warfare. One of the most important was that of serving their lords at table, specifically carving the meat and pouring the wine. They also cared for and prepared their knight's clothes, helping him dress and undress. They were messengers and errand-boys, sent both to deliver information, letters or goods and to collect the same. They were often essential go-betweens between a knight and the lady of his affection, but they were just as often sent to buy things or pay tradesmen and more mundane tasks. They might be expected to entertain their employer with music, reading or just playing dice, checkers or chess. In all these functions, they did not seriously distinguish themselves from ordinary servants and their status would not have been elevated above that of other hired men had it not been for their essential services in warfare. 

It was because a knight could not perform his military role without a squire that squires had a higher status, but it was also because that role took them to the very brink of — if not into — battle that serving as a squire gradually evolved into an apprenticeship for knighthood. Thus, while it was not necessary that a squire be a youth of noble birth, it was necessary for a youth of noble birth to have been a squire if he wanted to have a chance of knighthood.

The militarily relevant services of a squire were first and foremost the care of the all-important warhorse, upon whose health, soundness, and temper a knight’s life depended. Squires were responsible for seeing that their lord’s precious (and very expensive!) warhorse was in optimal condition. This started with making sure he was properly fed and watered, but also meant ensuring he had clean straw in his stall and a blanket in cold weather. It further entailed ensuring that his feet were trimmed and properly shod, that any injuries were treated, that colic was prevented (to the extent possible), and, of course, that he was groomed and tacked up whenever needed.

The second military function of a squire was the care of his lord’s equipment, including his tack but also his arms and armor. A lazy or inept squire, who failed to ensure his knight’s sword belt, scabbard, hauberk, coif, chausses, helmet etc. were in the best possible condition, could cost a man his life. Care of medieval equipment was very labor-intensive and often required specialty knowledge. What kind of fat best prevented chainmail from rusting without stinking infernally? What was the best method of removing sweat from the lining of aventails or coifs without getting the chainmail wet (and so likely to rust)? etc. etc. etc.

Both of these duties (horse and equipment maintenance) were particularly important and difficult when a knight was on campaign, moving across long distances, sleeping in strange inns or castles, tents or in the open field. Furthermore, when campaigning, a squire also had to look after his lord’s belly and comfort, to ensure the knight himself was as fighting-fit as possible.

Finally, when battle itself was joined, the squire tacked up and brought forward the destrier, turned it over to the knight (helping him mount), and handed up a lance. Ideally, the squire then retreated to the “rear” (the baggage train) with his knight’s palfrey to await developments. His duties were not, however, over. He might be called upon to bring his knight another lance, or even another horse (if he had one), to bring him water during a lull in the fighting, or to drag him off the field if wounded and apply first aid, or, lastly, to recover the body if he were killed.

These duties were anything but risk-free. Quite aside from the risks involved in caring for high-strung, bad-tempered stallions, the responsibility for the horses often entailed foraging for fodder — a duty that frequently took squires into enemy territory. One of the instances during the Third Crusade in which Richard the Lionheart was nearly captured or killed started with the Saracens surprising “the squires” while they were foraging. (Itinerarium Peregrinorum et Gesta Regis Ricardi, Book 4, Chapter 30).

Furthermore, there were often circumstances that precluded a safe retreat to the rear. Ambushes generally placed everyone from the baggage-cart drivers to the commanders at equal risk. Likewise, campaigns deep into enemy territory made engagement without the opportunity to separate the squires from the other fighting men a greater probability. At the Battle of Hattin, the Frankish army was completely surrounded, and the squires had no choice but to fight in the very thick of the battle.

As a result, squires represented not only an essential component of a knight’s battlefield effectiveness but also made up a significant portion of medieval army strength.  They are, however, largely invisible to us today precisely because they were treated by contemporaries as a part of the “knight.” Thus, when describing the composition of a medieval army chroniclers recorded so-and-so many knights and infantry; sometimes (if being particularly precise) they might talk about bowmen vs. men-at-arms, or mention “pikemen” or other infantry, based on the weapons they carried. Only on very rare occasions do squires emerge from the dust of battle, as in the above example, where they are identified as the cause of an engagement involving the English King. 

Nevertheless, because the number of squires were at least equal to the number of knights engaged they represented a significant component of the fighting strength of medieval armies. They were not as heavily armored as knights, and did have the same caliber of horse, but the more experienced squires were undoubtedly skilled — and mounted — fighting men, who, when circumstances allowed, could make a significant contribution.

This is evidenced by a number of incidents in which squires were knighted because of their actions in battle. Of course, battlefield knightings were not confined to squires, at least not in the early centuries of knighthood, but there was a bias in favor of knighting squires before or after battle in the Late Middle Ages because by then squires were increasingly youth or young men of good family pre-destined for knighthood anyway.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Medical Practitioners in the Crusader Era

It is often assumed that the people who practiced medicine in the Middle Ages were ignorant, untrained, guided by “pure superstition” and accountable to no one. In today’s post, the second in a series of guest essays by German scholar Fermin Person, + Real Crusades History + looks at medical practitioners and standards in the Crusader States.

In today’s world, the permission to practice medicine (prescribe medication, operate etc.) is usually closely regulated by the state.  

In the west during 11th – 13th century several distinctions were made between the grades of knowledge and practical training a medical practitioner had. 

A rather small group were called physicus / fisicien. They had a high degree of knowledge for their time, combining the study of liberal Arts at a university with medical education. The title of physicus/fisicien usually implied the degree of magister because of the received education in liberal Arts. The centres for learning in the Latin west were Salerno, Montpellier, Paris, Bologna, Cambridge, Oxford or Padua. It was at these universities that the physicus/ficicien were trained.

Notably, there are examples of female physicians such as Hersende. Hersende was physician to Louis IX and accompanied him during the crusade to Egypt (1248-50).

The term medicus/ miege /mire was used for all types of doctors during the medieval period. They would take the patients history, examine them and treat them, for example with diet, medication or bloodletting. To some degree they also practiced surgery.

The profession of cyrurgicus (surgeon) was considered a trade rather than a profession. It was learned via an apprenticeship, until the end of the 13th century when it started to be studied on the universities of the Latin west. Cyrurgici were commonly seen as less well educated, were worse paid and had a lower social status than physici. Surgery was seen by medici as a manual trade along the line of carpentry or stone masonry. During the late 13th century cyrurgici with the title of master, indicating their academic education started to appear. Their task was the treatment of wounds as well as the treatment of illnesses that could be seen from the outside (like leprosy or venereal diseases) or might require a surgical treatment.

The profession of berberus /rasorius was likewise a trade learnt via an apprenticeship. Their task was to shave as well as to care for wounds in time of need.

Similarly, the minutor/phlebotomus/sangunator was a specialist tradesman that only did bloodletting. He was also educated during an apprenticeship and would follow the orders of a physician or blood-let on the request of a patient.

The apothecarius/ herbolarius/ spicer prepared medicine according to the orders of a medicus or he could sell the medicine directly to the patients. 

Despite the restrictions that were placed on medical education of clergyman during the council of Tours many physicians (physicus/fisicien) were clergyman. Apart from minor restrictions by the fourth Lateran council for subdeacons, deacons and priests, clergyman could practise surgery to the full extant.

The known sources suggest a strong influx of European physicians and surgeons as well as barbers to Outremer. However, there is also documentary evidence for local Christian and Jewish physicians. Furthermore, there seem to have been Muslim physicians as in the hospital of St John in 12th century Jerusalem there were two versions of an oath for newly hired surgeons, supposedly allowing also non-Christians to practise. In addition, a decree of the Frankish church of Nicosia forbade their employment in a church run hospital. Note, however, that we have no comprehensive records of the overall numbers and qualifications of medical practitioners, but are instead dependent on predominantly juridical documents where physicians stood witness for testaments etc.

Medical Standards in the Crusader States

The crusader states seem to have adopted and modified the Muslim system of hisbah.

In the Muslim system of hisbah an official called the muhtasib (in Frankish mahteseb) controlled quality standards of crafts. In the Frankish adoption of the system (found in the commentaries of the legislation of the kingdom of Jerusalem the “Assis de la Cour de Bourgeois” from 1240-44) a council of the best doctors of a town under the provost of the local bishop licensed a physician.

Therefore a thorough examination was conducted by the council of physicians. If a candidate did not show sufficient knowledge he was forbidden to practice medicine.
If he practiced medicine without a license he was beaten out of town. A similar system developed about the same time in the kingdom of Sicily.

Excurs: Medical negligence in the Laws of the Kingdom of Jerusalem
The Assis de la Cour des Bourgeois from 1240-44 is our principal source about medical legislation in the crusading states. It lays out the mechanisms of medical licensing and punishment for medical negligence. 
In case of medical negligence, a distinction is made if the victim is a slave or a free man.
Furthermore, a distinction is made if the illness can be realistically healed by a physician (like a bone fracture) or not (like measles).

If a physician crippled or killed a slave because of medical negligence he was bound to pay compensation to the owner.

If a physician killed or crippled a free man because of medical negligence he was submitted to various physical punishments such as the amputation of the right thumb or even hanging.


Mitchel, Piers D.  (2007) Medicine during the crusades, Cambridge University press

Tony Hunt (1999) The Medieval Surgery, Boydell & Brewer Inc

Edgington, S. (1994) Medical knowledge of the crusading armies: the evidence of Albert of Aachen and others. In M Barber, The Military Orders: Fighting for the Faith and caring for the Sick, (Aldershot, Ashgate)

Keda, B (1998) A twelfth century description of the Jerusalem Hospital, In H. Nicholson (ed.). The Military Orders. II Welfare and Warfare (Aldershot: Ashgate), pp. 3-26.