“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 briefly experimented with building a “melting-pot” society that 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 conquered (or liberated, depending on your perspective) 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 22% 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” not “peasants.”
Likewise the merchant classes in the crusader states 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) land forces 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.
Those feudal overlords were, furthermore, in many ways “self-made” men quite different from modern stereotypes of medieval lords. Social mobility in the 12th century was considerably greater than most people think. Men could be knighted for bravery and allowed to start living on the fringes of aristocratic society. Girls with sufficient dowries, regardless of how obtained, could marry into the gentry. And younger sons and landless knights could seek to make their fortune either on the tournament circuit —or on crusade.
Even the Kings of Jerusalem and the Counts of Tripoli were derived from “cadet” branches of their respective noble houses. Baldwin II of Jerusalem had an elder brother Eustace, who was passed over because Baldwin was present in the East, a known quantity, while his elder brother was still in France. The first Count of Tripoli was even less conventional: he was the illegitimate son of Raymond of St. Gillies, one of the leaders of the First Crusade, who died shortly before the successful capture of Tripoli. The Principality of Antioch, although founded by the Prince of Taranto (a leader of the First Crusade and a Norman), soon fell into the hands of less exalted hands, when the family failed to produce male heirs. The Principality passed to a daughter, Constance, and she married first Raymond of Poitiers, the younger brother of the Duke of Aquitaine, and then — and this is where it gets truly interesting — a relatively low-born adventurer by the name of Reynald de Châtillon.
|Reynald depicted in "The Kingdom of Heaven"|
Châtillon exemplifies the opportunities that the crusader states offered men of the feudal elite who lacked lands of their own. His origins are obscure, but presumably came from a place in France called Châtillon, Châtillon-sur-Loire has been suggested. He may have been the lord of it, or simply hailed from there. He took part in the Second Crusade in the train King Louis, but remained in the Holy Land after the French King had returned to France. He evidently seduced the widowed Princess Constance of Antioch into a secret marriage, and through her became Prince of Antioch—until her death. She died while Reynald was in a Saracen prison, where he was incarcerated for no less than 15 years! When he was released, his step-son, Constance’s son by her first marriage, had come of age and had no room at his court for his step-father. So Reynald promptly found another powerful, heiress, in this case the Lady of Oultrejourdain, one of the most important baronies of the Kingdom of Jerusalem.
|The Hollywood Guy de Lusignan|
Of course, no adventurer topped the record of Guy de Lusignan. Born the fourth son of a Poitevan lord, he distinguished himself by being part of the rebellion against his feudal overlord Eleanor of Aquitaine (not a great distinction, of course, as it was very common in this period), possibly participated in the murder of the Earl of Salisbury, and then fled to the Holy Land, where he promptly seduced and married the widowed heir-apparent to the entire kingdom: Princess Sibylla of Jerusalem. His brother-in-law, the dying Leper King, spent most of the rest of his reign trying to get rid of Guy either via divorce or by check-mating his claims to the throne in various other arrangements, but he ultimately failed and Guy de Lusignan became King of Jerusalem. Within a year he’d led it to total desctruction.
While these are the spectacular and familiar cases of young men “striking it rich” in the Holy Land, there were countless more obscure examples. Sir Steven Runcimen notes in his essay "The Families of Outremer" (published by University of London, 1960) that many men who later attained power and peerage had no title to start with. Indeed, they were without any kind of last name when the arrived and were known simply as "Guy the Frenchman" or "Stephanie the Fleming." Runicman also points out that even apparent connections to noble families in the West were often not based on blood relations but rather on service. A case in point was the Falconberg family that became lords of Tiberias and were connected to the minor fief of Fauquembergue near Boulogne, but were descended from the custodian of the castle not the the lord. One of those adventurers of obscure origin was the father of Balian d'Ibelin, the hero of my novels.