Post-classical history


War and peace in the twelfth-century Levant

This chapter presents an intermission in our examination of events in the Levant during the crusading period. Our focus now turns to a wider consideration of Muslim–Frankish interaction both on and off the battlefield. First, we will consider in general terms what the Muslims actually learned about the Franks during the period. Then we will discuss Muslim military tactics. Subsequently we will consider Muslim–Frankish relations off the battlefield, including the situation of Muslims under Latin rule, treaties and trade, before devoting closer attention to the opinions that Muslim writers present us with on some aspects of Frankish culture.


As we seek to explore the wider interactions between the Muslims and the Franks, we immediately encounter a difficulty in that the amount of source material that is available to us drops significantly. Many of the sources that we have been relying on so far are concerned above all with political history, telling us much about the activities of Muslim rulers, but the Franks normally only appear when they have a direct impact on the territories of these rulers. Aspects of Frankish internal politics do appear in the Muslim sources, but their deeper cultural characteristics are mostly ignored by them. The accounts of the battles that we have also tend to be presented only in simple terms, principally from a religious point of view rather than an expert military one; we read far more often about the role of the supernatural in victories won by one side or the other, and far less often about the particular strategic manoeuvres that carried the day (see, for example, Doc. 10). This is of course not surprising, since the majority of the writers of the Muslim sources tended to be religiously trained scholars rather than military officers.

However, the situation is not entirely gloomy. It is possible to glean a certain amount about Muslim–Frankish interactions from the anecdotes with which the Muslim writers adorn their narratives, and we do have a few cases of specialized works that give us a deeper understanding of the topics under discussion here. When we come to examine Muslim military tactics and the impact that the Franks had on these, we are fortunate that we have a number of military manuals from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, which contain information on the various sorts of weapons that Muslim soldiers used and the tactics that they employed, although the extent to which such works present ideals rather than realities is of course something that we must bear in mind [Doc. 13]. These works can be supplemented with the evidence of both artistic works and other texts to give us greater insight (Hillenbrand, 1999 a: 432–9). Learning about Frankish–Muslim interaction off the battlefield is harder, as we of course do not have specialized ethnographic studies of the Franks written by Muslim authors, and so much of our evidence is anecdotal; this of course raises concerns about how far it is reliable and how far truth is subordinated to the literary or propagandistic aims of the writers in question.

A case in point is the Kitab al-I‘tibar (Book of Contemplation) of the emir Usama ibn Munqidh, a work that has enjoyed perhaps disproportionate attention in the west due to both its uniqueness and its having been available in translation since the end of the nineteenth century. Born in his clan stronghold of Shayzar in northern Syria, Usama had a chequered career during which he spent periods serving as an officer under both a number of Sunni rulers in Syria and the Fatimid caliphs in Egypt; in many instances he had to move on after becoming involved in dangerous political entanglements! He eventually joined the court of Saladin, where he was initially warmly welcomed but seems to have become (or at least felt) neglected by his exalted patron. He died in 1188 at the age of 93, lamenting the loss of his youthful vigour (Cobb, 2005: passim). The Kitab al-I‘tibar, which presents itself as the memoirs of the aging Usama, has been much celebrated by historians as giving an account of one Muslim’s relations with the Franks, both in battle and in times of peace. Certainly Usama claims to have had friends among the Latins, including even the Templars, who apparently used to let him pray in a mosque next to their headquarters in the Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount (Usama, 2008: 147), and he describes his experiences of Frankish culture in a wide range of forms, including judicial proceedings, medical practices and their behaviour towards women [Doc. 14]. However, as a number of scholars have noted, we cannot take Usama’s work at face value. As mentioned previously, Usama was well known for his literary skills, and his purported memoirs show a wealth of features that indicate that they are intended to be entertaining and didactic rather than a straightforward account of his experiences; in particular, following Qur’anic precedent they juxtapose contrasting examples that seek to teach readers how to live as a good and honourable Muslim in the face of the inevitability of divine decree (Irwin, 1998: 73–5; Cobb, 2005: 67–91). Thus when we read his work we must recall that it is one that is carefully constructed, and much of what he tells us is probably embroidered at the very least, if not at times complete fabrication; Usama was a talented storyteller who preferred not to let the facts get in the way of a good yarn, if it served his purposes. That said, at times he perhaps reveals more to us about Frankish–Muslim interactions than he intends, as will be discussed below.


Despite the problematic nature of the sources, it is possible to detect a marked evolution in Muslim knowledge of the Franks during the crusading period. As we have indicated earlier, the Arabic term ifranj (along with similar permutations of the f-r-n-j root letters), which we translate as ‘Franks’, was originally used by Muslim writers to refer to the people of, roughly, the Frankish territories that emerged after the collapse of the Roman Empire and came under the sway of the Merovingians and their successors, the Carolingians. However, with the onset of the Crusades the term came to be used of western Europeans in general, without intending to refer to a particular part of the region. This generalized usage persisted as the decades passed, even though it is apparent that by the second half of the twelfth century the Muslims had gradually gained a deeper understanding of the differences between the origins of the various Franks whom they encountered. Ibn al-Qalanisi, writing in about 1145–60, was already distinguishing the Genoese from the rest of the Franks, though he also occasionally mixed up names and ethnicities, calling Conrad III of Germany (r. 1138–52), for example, by the name ‘Alman’, probably an Arabicization of the medieval French word aleman (German) [Doc. 7.i]. Later writers clearly distinguished between the ethnicities of the Franks, as well as seeing the Franks of the crusader states as being distinct from the Franks of Europe, even as they continued to use ifranj as an over-arching ethnic term (see, for example,Doc. 7.ii). Indeed, as we have noted (see Chapter 4), some writers suggested that Muslim exploitation of the distinction between ‘local’ and ‘foreign’ Franks played a part in the thwarting of the Second Crusade’s attack on Damascus (Hillenbrand, 1999 a: 303 and 331–4; Christie, 1999: 63–71 and 187–90). By the same token, Usama gives us two (typically balanced) anecdotes through which he contrasts the rough nature of Franks who are newly arrived from Europe with the more refined character of those who have lived in the Levant for some time and have adapted to Middle Eastern ways, though he is careful to note that the latter ‘are the exception and should not be considered representative’ (Usama, 2008: 147 and 153–4; Cobb, 2005: 104–5; Christie, 1999: 69–71).

We also see Muslim writers singling out particular figures by name in order to express respect or condemnation; for example, the merits of Richard I the Lionheart of England, Louis IX of France and the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II are all praised by Muslim writers, while Conrad of Montferrat (r. as King of Jerusalem, 1190–2) and above all Reynald of Châtillon are vehemently criticized (Hillenbrand, 1999 a: 336–47). Of course, often such praise is given with ulterior motives, not the least of which is the reflection of even greater praise on the Muslim heroes who fought or defeated such formidable opponents.

It is worth noting that the Muslim writers were undoubtedly aware from the outset that the Franks were Christians. The Muslims had been intimately acquainted with Christians living within their communities for centuries, as we have seen (see Chapter 2), and some of them knew a significant amount about Christianity. However, the Muslim sources play down this understanding, instead emphasizing the (to them) heretical nature of the Christian faith, above all by using words such as kuffar (blasphemers or infidels) andmushrikun (polytheists) to refer to their enemies, and by regularly calling down God’s curses upon them (see, for example, Doc. 14.i); this allows them to present the Franks firmly as enemies of both the Muslim inhabitants of the Levant and God Himself. We will return to the Muslim sources’ presentation of Frankish Christianity below.

Kuffar: Arabic: ‘blasphemers’ or ‘infidels’. A term applied by the Muslim sources to the Franks, whose claims that Jesus was the son of God were seen by the Muslims as blasphemous.

Mushrikun: Arabic: ‘polytheists’. A term used by the Muslim sources of the Franks as a way of denigrating them.

It is worth considering whence the Muslims probably derived their improving knowledge of the Franks. As we have seen, even before the arrival of the first crusaders the Muslims had encountered Franks, including those serving in the Byzantine armies and those who visited the east as merchants, ambassadors or pilgrims. It is clear that these interactions continued throughout the crusading period, although the Frankish troops whom the Muslims encountered were now usually fighting on their own behalf rather than that of the Byzantines, or even sometimes serving as mercenaries in Muslim armies (Nicolle, 1999: 208). With regard to diplomatic contacts, it is clear that Muslim rulers increasingly exchanged embassies with not only local Frankish rulers, but also more distant European monarchs and popes. The Italian trading powers had already been negotiating with the rulers of Egypt before the crusading period, but in the latter half of the twelfth century Muslim–Frankish diplomacy expanded in volume and geographical range; early evidence of this includes letters exchanged between Saladin and both Frederick I Barbarossa and the papacy (Eddé, 2011: 244–5 and 302), and such diplomatic interactions expanded still further after the sultan’s death. Muslim writers would also have encountered both Frankish converts to Islam and Frankish slaves who had been former prisoners of war; there were many of the latter in particular, especially in the wake of the Battle of Hattin in 1187. Muslims and Franks also interacted socially; we have already noted that Usama described some Templars in Jerusalem as being his friends, and both he and other writers give accounts of Frankish festivals that they attended. Thus it is apparent that as the Crusades proceeded there were ever more opportunities for the Muslims and the Franks to gain a fuller understanding of each other’s cultures and habits. There were, however, other factors that limited the extent to which such opportunities influenced the Muslim sources, as we shall see.


It is important to note from the outset that the armies with which the Muslims fought the Franks were diverse in composition and tactics, and every military encounter had its own particular circumstances and physical context, so that what follows is only a brief overview of the armies and tactics of the Muslim forces. When the crusaders arrived in the east, the Fatimid army was in the process of being reformed by the viziers Badr al-Jamali and al-Afdal Shahanshah. The core of the army was made up of infantry, including archers and javelin troops, who were supported by light cavalry and a range of other troops, including mercenary light infantry from Daylam in Persia, black African slaves serving as heavy infantry and Turkish mamluks and horse-archers. As a result of the reforms, the mercenary and slave contingents were expanded, though the core contingents remained the basis of Fatimid tactics, which required infantry and cavalry to co-operate effectively (Nicolle, 1999: 119– 20, 2007: Vol. 2, pp. 39–42).

The forces used by the Seljuks and Zangids continued, broadly, to follow the earlier Seljuk model, being based around two core contingents, one consisting of Turkish mamluks, who fought equally effectively with bows and close-combat weapons, and the other consisting of Turkmen horse-archers. In the case of the Zangids, such forces were supplemented with free Kurdish cavalry. Thus their armies continued to emphasize mobility in their tactics. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the Seljuks of Rum expanded their forces to include a wider range of mercenary and allied contingents. Some of these consisted of European or Frankish troops, who seem not to have been criticized by western sources for ‘fighting for the enemy’, in contrast to the reaction that such mercenaries received when fighting for Muslim rulers of Syria or Egypt (Nicolle, 1999: 176–8 and 207–9, 2007: Vol. 2, p. 35; Holt, 1986: 42–3).

Saladin and his successors followed the Seljuk and Zangid model, basing their armies above all on cavalry, principally Turkish mamluks and free Turkmen and Kurdish troops. Saladin did initially make use of infantry, but over time he and his successors placed an increasing emphasis on cavalry armies, with infantry being used only in siege actions. In addition, Saladin’s successors reduced the prominence of Kurdish troops in their forces, instead expanding the mamluk contingents in their armies. The Ayyubids also made use of additional mercenary and allied contingents drawn from various parts of the Muslim world (Nicolle, 1999: 120–1, 2007: Vol. 2, pp. 42–5; Hillenbrand, 1999 a: 445).

It is important not to neglect the auxiliary troops who swelled the ranks of the Muslim armies. As indicated above, for sieges it would be necessary to employ infantry, and city militias could be drawn on to assist with this, thus acting as offensive as well as defensive troops; at times city militiamen were also even mounted on horses and used as cavalry. Bedouin Arabs also frequently served in Muslim armies, and charismatic rulers such as Nur al-Din and Saladin also attracted volunteer soldiers; Saladin’s forces at the Battle of Hattin in 1187, for example, included a large contingent of ascetics and Sufis who had chosen to take up arms in the jihad against the Franks (Nicolle, 1999: 176–8, 2007, Vol. 2, p. 35; Holt, 1986: 42–3; Hillenbrand, 1999 a: 445).

It is clear from the above that the majority of the Muslim armies consisted mainly of cavalry, with mobility being the most prized quality in troops. On the battlefield, Muslim armies were normally divided into a centre and two wings, with the greater part of the cavalry being found in the centre; this formation could be supported with a vanguard and additional flanking units. Favoured tactics included harassment of the enemy by repeated waves of horse-archers, each of which would advance, shower the enemy with arrows and then retreat to make way for the next, which would arrive about ten seconds later; the attrition from such attacks was intended to weaken a force and make it vulnerable to a final, crushing cavalry charge. Related to this was the traditional Muslim tactic of al-karr wa’l-farr, a rotation system that enabled repeated attacks to be made, sometimes by different units of attackers. This is not to say that Muslim troops were not also capable of the more traditional military manoeuvres; the mamluks were known for the effectiveness of their shock charges, and also became increasingly skilled at standing, rapid-fire arrow volleys that enabled them to decimate more mobile foes like the Mongols (Nicolle, 2007: Vol. 2, pp. 122–50).

There is one Frankish military manoeuvre that attracted particular attention from Muslim chroniclers, and has also received much attention from modern scholars: the Frankish heavy cavalry charge. When describing the Frankish effort to take Damascus in 1148, Ibn al-Qalanisi notes that at one point the Frankish cavalry prepared to make the charge ‘for which they are famous’, though in this case without success (Ibn al-Qalanisi, 1983: 464). Joshua Prawer has described the charge of the Frankish heavy cavalry, when launched, as ‘pareil à un bloc de fer se mouvant à toute vitesse’ (like a block of iron moving at full speed; Prawer, 1964: 178). The potential psychological impact and physical destructiveness of the Frankish cavalry charge was immense; it could shatter a battle line and punch a hole through an army. However, it was an attack of opportunity, requiring particular circumstances, rather than a manoeuvre that could be set up in advance, which made it difficult to deliver. In addition, the Muslims soon learned ways to neutralize its effectiveness, including avoiding presenting a static target or opening their ranks to allow the charge to pass through the gap; the charging unit could then be attacked in the flanks or rear (as seen at the Battle of Hattin in 1187; see Chapter 5). In response, the Franks sought to ensure that infantry crossbowmen co-operated effectively with cavalry, protecting them from harassment until suitable opportunities to charge arose, but the Muslims became so skilled at minimizing such opportunities that the tactic eventually saw little use against them. The decline of the use by Muslim armies of infantry, the most obvious targets for such cavalry charges, was also a contributory factor (Nicolle, 2007, Vol. 1, pp. 65–8).

It is worth noting that pitched battles between Muslims and Franks were actually relatively rare. Forces for such encounters required considerable resources to mount, and they were incredibly destructive in terms of human lives and equipment. For the Latin states, which relied on careful co-operation of the Frankish field army and castles for their survival, engaging in major battles was a risky endeavour, for the destruction of the army would leave the strongholds and cities of the Latin states vulnerable to attack; this was exactly what happened in the wake of the Battle of Hattin in 1187. Thus most encounters between military forces tended to be skirmishes, often occurring as a result of forces from one side being sent out to repel enemy forces who had entered their territory to conduct raids. Given this situation, siege warfare was more decisive in determining the balance of power between Muslims and Franks.

Both the Franks and the Muslims built fortifications. The prevailing view of scholars thus far has been that the Franks were more skilled and innovative at building fortifications, something that resulted both from their already having superior techniques at their disposal when they arrived in the Levant and from the necessity of using networks of fortifications to ensure the survival of the Latin states (Hillenbrand, 1999 a: 468 and 502–4). However, this view has recently been challenged by a number of scholars, including David Nicolle and Kate Raphael; Nicolle, for example, has pointed out that many of the first castles built by the crusaders were erected on the foundations of earlier Muslim strongholds, and that it was from the Muslims that the Franks learned to build cisterns in castles to store water, a vital requirement in withstanding a siege (Nicolle, 2007: Vol. 2, p. 204). The situation is further complicated by the fact that both the Muslims and the Franks would often restore and re-use fortifications that they took from each other, sometimes extending or modifying them, and both sides also built on even earlier structures; for example, Saladin’s brother al-‘Adil Muhammad based the citadel of Busra al-Sham on a Roman theatre, to which he added concentric walls between 1202 and 1218 (Hillenbrand, 1999 a: 500; Nicolle, 2007: Vol. 2, p. 218). It is also clear that both the Franks and the Muslims were influenced by other cultures of the area, such as the Byzantines and Armenians. An early example from the Muslim side is the massive Bab al-Futuh(Gate of Conquests; see Plate 3) in Cairo, which was completed in 1087, shortly before the arrival of the crusaders, at the orders of Badr al-Jamali, the vizier of the Fatimid caliph, who was himself Armenian and employed fellow Armenian architects in the task; it is not surprising, then, that it shows similarities to contemporary Greater Armenian architecture (Ettinghausen and Grabar, 1994: 186). Thus we cannot make neat comparisons between the Muslims and Franks in terms of superiority or inferiority in their military architecture.

We can, however, detect a different emphasis in the military architecture created by the Muslims and the Franks. While the Latins built primarily castles, the Muslims devoted most of their attention to strengthening the defences of cities. This is not to disregard the importance or quality of the castles built by Muslim rulers; for example, both Nicolle and Raphael have drawn attention to the castle at Ajlun, built in the Jordan valley at the orders of Saladin in 1184–5, which is superior in design and layout to the nearby crusader castle of Belvoir (Nicolle, 2007: Vol. 2, p. 218; Raphael, 2011, 11–51; see Plate 4). However, Muslim rulers spent far more time and resources on strengthening the walls and citadels of towns and cities, something that Carole Hillenbrand ascribes to the tendencies of the Muslims of the region to see cities as their natural places of shelter, with the citadels providing fortified strongholds in time of need (Hillenbrand, 1999 a: 473). Saladin, for example, spent considerable resources strengthening the walls and citadels of a number of Muslim cities; perhaps the best-known surviving example of this is the Citadel in Cairo, which was begun at his orders in 1176. The Citadel’s fortifications were completed after his death by his brother al-‘Adil Muhammad, and the complex was further expanded by subsequent rulers of Egypt in the centuries that followed (Hillenbrand, 1999 a: 478–9; see Plate 5).

The equipment and weapons used by both Muslims and Franks were, on the whole, the same. Both attackers and defenders would use swing-beam mangonels (initially pulled by hand but later by a counterweight), crossbows and bows to shoot projectiles (both regular and incendiary) at each other and (in the case of the attackers’ mangonels) to damage fortifications. Defenders would also use rocks, javelins, incendiaries and anything else suitable that came to hand to repel those trying to get into the stronghold being attacked. Attackers would use various forms of rams to damage walls and gates. Likewise, they would use wheeled, wooden shelters and siege towers to attack walls and protect those operating rams or conducting sapping operations, though it seems that the Muslims made less use of these; Nicolle ascribes this both to the fact that the Muslims were expert in the use of incendiaries, including naphtha (Greek fire), and hence were aware of how easy such constructions were to destroy, and to the fact that wood was always in short supply (Hillenbrand 1999 a: 523–9; Nicolle, 2007: Vol. 2, p. 237).

Naturally, the means used to prosecute sieges varied. Many of the weapons mentioned above were intended to batter fortifications and their defenders, both to create breaches through which to gain entry, reducing the number of capable defenders in the process, and to intimidate the enemy into surrendering. Sappers would dig tunnels under walls, which they would then fill with incendiary materials and set fire to; the resultant conflagration would create a weakness in a wall’s foundations that could cause it to collapse. Of course, if the enemy became aware of the sapping attempt, they might dig a moat or counter-tunnel to intercept the sappers, which could lead to furious battles being fought in the tunnels. Other means might be used to harm enemy morale, including playing drums during assaults to create an intimidating noise or forging letters from the defenders’ allies or military superiors telling them to surrender. Naturally, the besiegers would attempt to cut off supplies to the stronghold that they were attacking, to weaken their enemies both physically and psychologically. At times bribery or trickery led to the surrender of fortresses. Taking a city or castle by storm was probably the least-preferred option, as it would be very costly in terms of casualties and damage to the edifice in question, requiring a leader to rebuild both his forces and also the defences of the stronghold, if he wanted to re-use it (Hillenbrand, 1999 a: 529–33; Nicolle, 2007: Vol. 2, pp. 220–41).

Before concluding our discussion of warfare, we should give brief consideration to the role of Muslim navies in the war with the Franks. From the outset the crusaders outclassed the Muslims at naval warfare. When the Franks arrived in the Levant, the only political power there with any naval might was the Fatimid caliphate. However, while Fatimid fleets had been prominent in the eastern Mediterranean in the tenth and eleventh centuries, by the time that the First Crusade arrived the Fatimid navy was in decline and was unable to contribute significantly to the effort to prevent the Franks, who were supported by fleets from the Italian cities, from taking most of the ports on the coast of Syria and Palestine and hence securing a major tactical advantage. Saladin attempted to revive the Egyptian fleet with some success, even securing trade deals with the Italian city-states for raw materials, but was not sufficiently expert in naval warfare to use his ships effectively against the Franks, in the Mediterranean at least; as we have seen, his maritime activities in the Red Sea were more successful. His successors and their political heirs, the Mamluks (see Chapters 7 and 8) on the whole did not seek to recover a naval advantage against the Franks. As we shall see, the Mamluk solution to the problem was to adopt a general policy of razing the ports that they took from the Franks, so that they could not be used again as bridgeheads for crusading forces (Hillenbrand, 1999 a: 561–77; Nicolle, 2007: Vol. 2, pp. 256–68).

Yet we must not be too hasty to criticize the Muslim rulers of the time for their neglect of the maritime aspect of warfare. Admittedly, Muslim rulers could have made more efforts to prosecute the maritime military jihad against the Franks, but there were also a number of other factors that hindered the Levantine Muslim leaders from establishing a serious military presence in the Mediterranean Sea. As we have already noted, wood was always in short supply, and so were iron and wax, and given that the major source of these valuable resources for the Levant was Europe, their importation was periodically interrupted whenever military conflict led to a suspension of trade. In addition, both ships and their crews were expensive, and in many cases rulers’ coffers were already drained from assembling land-based armies. As Nicolle notes, the Muslims actually exceeded the Franks in terms of their theoretical expertise in shipbuilding and maritime activity; however, they did not translate this into practical dominance of the Mediterranean’s waters (Hillenbrand, 1999 a: 558–9 and 576–7; Nicolle, 2007: Vol. 2, pp. 256–68, esp. 256–7).

Let us return to our main question: to what degree were Muslim military tactics and technology influenced by the presence of the Franks? We have already touched on debates among scholars about the extent to which crusader military technology outstripped that of the Muslims, thus enabling the success of the First Crusade and the survival of the Frankish states for almost two centuries. Lynn White in particular described the Crusades as ‘implemented by the world’s best military technology’, and scholars seeking to understand the eventual demise of the crusader states generally explained it as having been a result of the Muslims outnumbering the Franks, rather than superior Muslim strategy or other causes (White, 1975: 97–112, esp. 111; France, 1997: 163; Hillenbrand, 1999 a: 578–9). However, more recently a number of scholars have argued for other factors playing a prominent part, in particular a lack of desire and capacity on the part of the Muslims to resist or extirpate the Franks; Carole Hillenbrand has noted that the Mamluks, who eventually swept the Franks from the coast (see Chapter 8), were distinctive in having ‘the expertise, resources and will to conduct […] a series of sieges and to uproot the Franks definitively’ (Hillenbrand 1999 a: 580).

In the meantime other scholars, including John France and David Nicolle, have shown that the Muslim forces were not actually inferior, in terms of their technology and structure, as has previously been assumed. As Nicolle has noted, the small but significant contingents of heavy cavalry that were used in Muslim armies during the period were actually, at least until the end of the twelfth century, more heavily armoured than the western knights, wearing both lamellar and mail armour and also using horse-armour; the latter in particular was only adopted by European cavalry in the thirteenth century. Likewise, the flow of influence with regard to gunpowder and incendiary weapons was probably from east to west, with Muslim ideas influencing Frankish and European ones. Meanwhile, as we have seen, there was probably also a mutual exchange of ideas in military engineering as better ways of resisting and prosecuting sieges developed (France, 1997: 163–76; Nicolle, 2007: Vol. 2, p. 293; Nicolle, 1994: 31–2 and 45).


Despite the hostility and resentment that they aroused, the Frankish conquests of Muslim territory did not result in mass-migrations of Muslims from the lands that had fallen into Latin hands. Certainly there were many who fled the Frankish attacks, particularly from cities in the aftermath of massacres like the ones that took place at Ma‘arrat al-Nu‘man in 1098 and Jerusalem in 1099. However, it is clear that for most Muslim peasants, once the dust of the First Crusade had settled, life did not change significantly, except that they were now paying taxes to Frankish rather than Muslim overlords. It was neither practical nor desirable for the Franks to expel the Muslim inhabitants of their new territories, for the former were few in number and could not import serfs of their own to work abandoned fields. The Franks became, on the whole, a ruling minority reigning over the majority inhabitants of the region, who as we have noted were a mixture of Muslims, eastern Christians and Jews (Prawer: 2001: 46–93). Frenkel has argued that there was a significant change in the lives of the Levantine peasantry, in that the Franks’ fusion of the pre-existent iqta‘ system with European feudal institutions led to them becoming serfs under Latin rule, and then remaining so under Saladin and his successors when they maintained the Frankish practices after they conquered their lands (Frenkel, 1997: passim). It is, however, very difficult to make generalizations about Frankish treatment of the peoples whom they conquered, as there was a great deal of variation from place to place, and every situation was different.

Why did most of the Muslim peasants acquiesce to Latin rule? It is of course important to bear in mind that for peasants at the time, in both Europe and the Levant, the decision to abandon one’s lands and move to another place was not an easy one, and was often not practical simply because in doing so one was giving up one’s means of survival. However, it does seem that when faced with the complex ethnic and religious composition of the Levant, the Franks chose on the whole to enact only limited changes to the social structures that they encountered, enough to impose and maintain their ruling position but not to disrupt the established order any more than necessary. The Franks allowed the subject populations to practise their own religions and did not generally seek to convert them to Catholic Christianity, although of course they did appropriate a number of Muslim religious buildings, including the Dome of the Rock and the Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. A number of Muslims did convert, and some even rose to positions of prominence in their conquerors’ governments and military, but some Frankish lords found it more profitable to discourage or even prevent conversion of their non-Christian subjects, since non-Christian slaves who converted to Christianity were legally entitled to their freedom (Kedar, 1997 a: 190–3). Muslims were treated as inferior to Christians (including eastern Christians) in matters of law, and taxation was heavy, but Muslim peasants were taxed heavily by their Muslim overlords too, and in some cases this actually resulted in Muslims under Frankish rule being taxed less heavily than their neighbours under Muslim rule (Kedar, 1990: 153–74). The Spanish Muslim Muhammad ibn Jubayr (1145–1217) travelled through Frankish lands on the way back from performing the hajj, which he had apparently undertaken in remorse at having drunk seven cups of wine (Ibn Jubayr, 2001: 15); in his record of his travels he expresses his outrage at the sight of Muslims preferring Frankish to Muslim rule:

Our entire route passed through uninterrupted landed estates and orderly settlements, of which all of the inhabitants were Muslims, [living] in a state of contentment with the Franks. We take refuge with God from this temptation, which is that they give the Franks half their produce at the time that it is harvested, and a poll-tax for each person of one dinar and five qirat, and [the Franks] do not trouble them any more than that. […] The hearts of most of them have become dominated by this temptation, because of what they see of their brethren among the people of the Muslim regions and [how they are treated by] their governors, for the latter are in a state that is the contrary to theirs with regard to contentment and comfort. This is one of the calamities that is descending on the Muslims: the Muslim people complain of the tyranny of their co-religionist ruler and cherish the conduct of their opponent and enemy, the Frank who rules over them, being used to his justice.

(Ibn Jubayr, 1907: 301–2)

Ibn Jubayr thus criticizes both the Muslim peasants who choose to stay under Frankish rule and the Muslim overlords whose own behaviour makes this the more attractive option. Ibn Jubayr’s piety of course influenced his outlook, and as a foreigner he would not have been likely to have understood the nuances of the local interactions between Muslims and Franks that made this situation acceptable. It is also clear that the situation that he indignantly describes was not universally true (Kedar, 1990: 168).

A particularly well-known case of a significant number of Muslims fleeing Frankish rule is that of the Hanbalis of the Nablus region, about 30 miles north of Jerusalem, who emigrated to Damascus in 1156. This case has been studied in detail by Joseph Drory. According to the account of Diya’ al-Din Muhammad al-Muqaddasi (1173–1245), a member of the Qudama family, which led the exodus, the Frankish lord under whom the Muslims of the region lived, Baldwin of Ibelin, used to levy inflated taxes on his Muslim subjects, as well as mutilating the legs of some of them. The emigration was led by Ahmad ibn Qudama, a religious scholar who fled to Damascus because Baldwin planned to kill him and because of the oppressive conditions under which he and his fellows lived, which he felt included a lack of religious freedom. Ahmad subsequently sent a call to his family to follow him, perhaps seeing better opportunities for himself and his family in Damascus, where the Sunni revival was taking place under Nur al-Din. The obligation to emigrate from infidel territory was in line with Hanbali religious teaching, being seen as a form of imitation of the Prophet Muhammad, who emigrated from Mecca to Medina to avoid having to live with infidels. When Ahmad ibn Qudama issued his call, it was enthusiastically received by some of the inhabitants of nine villages under Baldwin’s rule; we have the names of 139 people who subsequently emigrated to Damascus. Others, however, rejected the call and attempted to prevent the migrants from departing, even informing the Frankish authorities of what was taking place, though the latter were unable to prevent the exodus. The Qudama family subsequently played a small role in the preaching and prosecution of the military jihad against the Franks (Drory, 1988: passim).

It is striking, of course, that Ahmad ibn Qudama’s call received only limited support, and indeed those who rejected it sought to prevent those who accepted it from leaving, even to the point of calling in the help of the Franks. Even if one accepts Diya’ al-Din’s accounts of Baldwin’s misdeeds as true (and they are probably exaggerated), one can still understand the reluctance of those who did not flee both to depart and to allow others to do so; we have highlighted above the economic and survival implications of abandoning one’s lands, and given that the inhabitants of medieval villages operated as unified communities, ploughing together, sowing together and reaping together, the Muslim peasants of the Nablus region must also have been unwilling to allow the manpower of their villages to become reduced. In any case, migrations such as the one described above were the exception rather than the rule.

The experience of Muslim prisoners in Frankish hands was rather different. They could be treated well, or they could be handled harshly, tortured or even killed. It is clear that they were an important element in the economic and especially military life of the Frankish territories; enslaved Muslims were often put to work, and in particular were used as manpower in the ongoing castle-building activities of the Franks. Among Muslims, ransoming prisoners is seen as a pious act; as we have seen, it is one of the uses to which the zakat is put, and at the time both private individuals and political figures devoted additional funds and efforts to redeeming prisoners. Indeed, Usama ibn Munqidh makes a point of mentioning the many prisoners whom he personally ransomed (Hillenbrand, 1999 a: 549–52; Kedar, 1997 b: 139–40, 1990, 152–3; Usama, 2008: 93–5).

As Hadia Dajani-Shakeel notes, the Muslims were particularly unsettled by the prospect of their womenfolk being taken prisoner by the Franks and possibly molested; indeed, it was assumed by both Muslims and Franks that women captured by the opposition would be unable to keep their virtue intact (Dajani-Shakeel, 1995: 206; Friedman, 1995: 81–5). Such molestation was seen as harmful not only to the woman in question, but also to the honour of the family, since it threatened the purity of the family bloodline (Cobb, 2005: 80–1). The Muslim poets who called for a response to the First Crusade certainly played on this concern, highlighting the distress that Muslim women were suffering as a result of the Franks’ activities [Doc. 5.i]. In his Kitab al-I’tibar Usama includes a number of stories that draw attention to this fear; perhaps the most striking is the one that describes the attitude of a member of the garrison of the bridge defences of Shayzar:

In the garrison of the Bridge was a Kurdish man called Abu al-Jaysh, who had a daughter named Raful, who had been carried off by the Franks. Abu al-Jaysh became pathologically obsessed with her, saying to everyone he met, ‘Raful has been taken captive!’

The next morning we went out to walk along the river and we saw a form by the bank of the river. We told one of the attendants, ‘Swim over there and find out what that thing is.’

He made his way over to it, and what should the form be but Raful, dressed in a blue garment. She had thrown herself from the horse of the Frank who had captured her and drowned. Her dress was caught in a willow-tree. In this way were the pangs of despair of her father silenced.

(Usama, 2008: 162)

For Raful and her father, as for many among both the Muslims and the Franks, a woman’s capture and the assumed rape that would follow were a fate seen as literally worse than death, to be avoided at all cost. Usama likewise speaks with great admiration of his mother who, when Shayzar was attacked by Nizari Isma‘ilis in March 1114, took his sister to a high balcony and was ready to push her off to her death rather than see her fall into the hands of the enemy. This did not mean that women who had been captured were not ransomed back by the Muslims, but it was expected that every effort should be made to avoid such an occurrence in the first place (Usama, 2008: 136–7; Friedman, 1995: 83–4; Christie, 1999: 87–8, 2004: 76 and 81; Cobb, 2005: 13).

It is important, of course, to give some consideration to Muslim treatment of Frankish prisoners, which in many ways reflected that of Muslim prisoners by the Franks. Frankish prisoners taken in battle by the Muslims faced the same uncertainty about their future. Some were tortured or killed out of hand, while others were enslaved and put to work. Some were given the choice of conversion to Islam or death, while others were simply released. We have already noted that in the wake of the Battle of Hattin in 1187 so many Frankish prisoners were sold into slavery that the market collapsed. As we have also seen, Saladin otherwise often let prisoners go free, which prompted criticism from Muslim authors who felt that in doing so he was allowing them to reinforce the Frankish armies (see Chapter 5). Of course, it is important to remember that feeding prisoners was a drain on resources, and for a sultan like Saladin, who was often short on cash, it must have been preferable to dispense with the burden, even if it swelled the enemy’s ranks. He could at least be satisfied with the potential impact that the arrival of defeated, dispirited soldiers might have on enemy morale.

High-ranking Frankish prisoners were likely to be held for ransom, sometimes for long periods. Raymond III of Tripoli and Reynald of Châtillon respectively spent 7 and 15 years in captivity, during which they probably learned Arabic and gained some awareness of Muslim culture. Not all Frankish leaders were so lucky, though, and the Muslim sources are full of stories of grisly fates inflicted on them by principally Turkish Muslim leaders. Perhaps one of the most gruesome examples concerns the death of Gervase of Basoches, the Frankish ruler of Tiberias; apparently, after capturing him in 1108, Tughtigin opened up his prisoner’s skull while the latter was still alive, scooped out its contents and drank wine from it. Gervase allegedly only died an hour later. Naturally, such stories contain a fair amount of exaggeration; as Carole Hillenbrand has noted, this probably reflects the fact that the Muslim writers saw the Turks as impious and barbaric (Hillenbrand, 1999 a: 552–3; consider also the story of Ilghazi’s drinking binge mentioned in Chapter 3). It is also possible that the circulation of such stories was actually encouraged by the Turkish rulers in the region, since it made rebellion against them an intimidating prospect, thus reinforcing their positions.


As will by now have become apparent, it is clear that the official state of hostility that was meant to exist between the Muslims and the Franks did not prevent them from making peace agreements and allying with each other as the circumstances required (see, for example, Doc. 7.ii). Indeed, as Frenkel has noted, the traditional vision of the Crusades as a period of conflict between Christians and Muslims has created a skewed impression in modern minds, when in fact the real situation was ‘one of fighting side by side with commerce and negotiations’(Frenkel, 2011: 29). Yvonne Friedman has traced approximately 109 treaties successfully made between Franks and Muslims between the years 1097 and 1291 that are noted in the sources for the period, and there were undoubtedly more, the records of which have not survived (Friedman, 2011: 232). Treaties and alliances were undertaken by most of the factions active in the region at the time and allowed for both joint military activity and more peaceful forms of interaction, including not only a cessation of bloodshed but also agreements about division of territory, exchanges of prisoners and in particular trade, which flourished in the region at the time.

By the crusading period Muslim scholars had given detailed consideration to the question of peace treaties. Precedents for making peace with non-Muslims are found in the Qur’an and the biographies of the Prophet, and agreements are permitted under almost all circumstances, including from positions of military strength, to avoid further bloodshed or to allow the Muslims an opportunity to bring in reinforcements or supplies; from positions of military parity, to allow for the use of alternate means to resolve the conflict; and from positions of military weakness, to allow the Muslims to adapt to the needs of the current situation (Friedman, 2011: 231). The popular view is that the duration of peace agreements can range from a few days to a maximum of ten years, but as Gideon Weigert has shown in an important article, most Muslim scholars have actually agreed that peace treaties can have an unlimited duration, and it is clear that many Muslim rulers throughout history also took this view. Muslims are expected to abide by the terms of the treaties that they make, and the decision to break a peace treaty with the enemy should not be undertaken lightly; in particular, the Muslims should announce their intentions to the enemy to give the latter the opportunity to prepare for the coming conflict (Weigert, 1997: 401–4).

Despite the clear legal authorization that existed for making peace with the Franks, Muslim rulers were still aware of the potential impact that their treaties and alliances might have on the way that they would be regarded by their subjects, particularly if they were simultaneously seeking to be viewed as great heroes of the jihad. Many were thus careful to ensure that they had publicized widely the justifications that they were using for their diplomatic relations with the Franks. Saladin, for example, even though he criticized other rulers who made alliances with the Franks, himself frequently came to agreements with the latter, of which his peace treaty with Richard I is but one example. He always ensured that his peacemaking fell within the requirements of Islamic law, and in his official propaganda he always justified these agreements on various grounds: a treaty might be presented as having been made to allow his troops time to rest and re-arm for the next phase of conflict; it might be described as a device to encourage the enemy to disperse without a fight, on the understanding that it would be difficult for them to gather their forces again in the future, especially if the forces in question were crusaders from abroad; or it might be depicted as having been made out of generosity because the Franks, in the face of humiliating defeat by the Muslims, were pleading for peace. Peace agreements with the Franks of course also allowed Saladin to concentrate on extending his political power within Muslim lands or consolidating his territorial gains, although naturally his propagandists did not dwell on this (Eddé, 2011: 271–3). Thus Saladin was careful to ensure that his negotiations with the Franks would not tarnish his image as a suitable leader of the Muslims by presenting them as having been undertaken out of unavoidable necessity or the clemency befitting a pious mujahid.

As indicated above, Islamic legal teaching requires Muslims to adhere to the terms of the peace agreements that they make, and the Muslims of the time clearly expected the same of the Franks. This is not to say that Muslim rulers never reneged on the treaties that they agreed to (with the Franks or other Muslims), but it is striking that one particular feature of the Franks that we see condemned repeatedly in the Muslim sources is treachery, a condemnation that becomes especially vehement when the Franks break truces without warning. Naturally, the benefits to be gained from not warning one’s opponents before making a raid upon them must have made such actions attractive, but given that on the whole the Franks generally adopted a similar approach to treaties with the Muslims, including usually warning them if they were going to break agreements, the occasions when this did not occur particularly offended the Muslim writers (Christie, 1999: 77–80 and 194–6; Dajani-Shakeel, 1993: 212–13). The Muslim sources seem to have seen these treacherous tendencies as even having led the Franks to deceive and work against one another for their own gains. We have seen that Ibn al-Athir, for example, describes the failure of the Second Crusade’s siege of Damascus as resulting from the Franks of the Levant collaborating with the Muslims of Damascus by withdrawing support from their brother-crusaders from Europe and encouraging the latter to give up the siege, for which they were rewarded with the castle of Banyas [Doc. 7.ii]. Thus the Franks’ predisposition to treachery is something that the Muslim sources depict as affecting not only the Muslims, but also others with whom they interact, including themselves (Christie, 1999: 108–9 and 211). That said, this feature of the Frankish personality is exaggerated by the sources for dramatic and propagandistic effect; both Muslims and Franks seem on the whole to have abided by the agreements that they made with one another, including the customary practices that were associated with their abrogation (Dajani-Shakeel, 1993: 211–13).

One of the major benefits of the peace treaties that the Muslims made with the Franks was vibrant trade between Europe and the Levant. As we have seen (see Chapter 2), there was already trade between the two regions before the launching of the First Crusade, and during this period, encouraged by the Frankish occupation of ports on the coast, such trade flourished. When he was not fighting the Franks, Saladin sought to nurture trade links with Europe, recognizing the lucrative gains that the Mediterranean trade routes offered (see Chapter 5). Other rulers adopted a similar approach, despite the ‘official’ state of war that existed between the two sides, and commerce boomed. Indeed, it is clear that incidents of conflict between the Muslims and the Franks caused only temporary hiatuses; for example, trade was suspended in the summer of 1187 in the wake of Saladin’s Hattin campaign, but resumed as early as the spring of 1188 (Eddé, 2011: 451).

Muslim rulers could justify their support of trade activities through Islamic legal teaching, which permits trade with the enemy provided that Muslim merchants do not supply them with war materials (such as weapons, armour and, according to some interpretations, horses, slaves and food) or prohibited substances (such as pork and wine). Importation of war materials is permitted, and foreign merchants are welcomed, provided that they pay customs duties on the goods that they sell (Khadduri, 1955: 223–30).

Funduq: The Arabic word for a trade hostelry where merchants could stay and store goods, derived from the Greek pandokheion (inn). Funduq is used in modern times to refer to a hotel.

Foreign merchants were accommodated in funduqs (trade hostelries) located in Muslim cities and specifically designated for this purpose. These were constructed with the approval of local Muslim rulers and were subject to regulations governing how they operated, which presumably helped the Muslim authorities to control the foreigners visiting their lands. A late example of such regulations comes from the account of the Irish pilgrim Symon Semeonis, who visited Alexandria in 1323; he notes that foreign merchants were locked in their funduqs at times, a measure that seems to have been intended to control their movements when the Muslim rulers saw fit, such as at night and during Friday prayers (Semeonis, 1960: 51; Constable, 2003: 124).

Probably the most important trade centre in the Levant was indeed Alexandria, which was the main channel for goods passing from the Indian Ocean through the Red Sea to the Mediterranean. As we have noted, Italian merchants had been trading in Alexandria even before the onset of the Crusades, and such trade only expanded as the period progressed. Acre also became a major mercantile centre in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, and to a degree the two ports were interdependent, with trade between them forming an important part of the commercial activities of the eastern Mediterranean (Abulafia, 1995: passim; Runciman, 1965: Vol. 3, p. 355).

East and west had much to offer each other. Western merchants bought both basics and luxury products including spices (especially pepper and ginger), embroidered and patterned rugs and textiles, dyes, glassware, porcelain, metalwork, gold and base metal ores. In return, they supplied eastern markets with silks, woollen cloth, cereals, silver and above all slaves, wood and iron (Hillenbrand, 1999 a: 404–7; Atiya, 1962: 182–6; Abulafia, 1994: 7–12). In providing these last three western merchants were effectively supporting the Muslim war effort; as we have seen, wood and iron were instrumental in the construction of siege weapons and ships, and many of the slaves became mamluks in the Muslim armies. While this state of affairs suited the Muslims, it generated significant resentment among the popes, who periodically tried to ban European merchants from trading with the Muslims, at times prohibiting trade completely and at others forbidding trade specifically in war materials. Even though the popes threatened excommunication of any who engaged in trade with the Muslims, their efforts were largely unsuccessful, for there was simply too much money to be made (Hillenbrand, 1999 a: 404–5).

It is worth noting that the Crusades were contemporary with significant developments in European intellectual culture, in particular the so-called ‘twelfth-century Renaissance’, which was based on the continued translation into Latin of both Arabic translations of Classical texts and the works that Muslim scholars produced as they synthesized and built upon these. However, the principal channels for such works seem to have been Iberia and Sicily, with the Latin states of the Levant playing only a secondary role (Irwin, 1995: 235). It is, on the other hand, possible to trace the transfer of some more practical innovations through the Latin states: for example, it was returning crusaders who brought the precise technique for making paper to Europe, and through obtaining Syrian techniques and materials in 1277 Venice was able to establish a virtual monopoly on glass production that lasted into the seventeenth century. Ceramic, leatherworking, metalworking and wood carving methods also seem to have been copied by western artisans from Middle Eastern models during this period (Atiya, 1962: 205–50).


We will now turn our attention to some aspects of Frankish culture as they are represented in the Muslim sources, considering how the Muslim writers portray their Frankish opponents. Space dictates that this will of necessity be a brief discussion, and readers are encouraged to consult the Further reading section at the end of this chapter for more extended treatments of the topics addressed here. In conducting our investigation we will be drawing particularly heavily on the data provided to us by Usama ibn Munqidh, who, as we have commented above, has been lionized by scholars as the major source for ‘anthropological’ information on the Franks, though we will naturally also be calling on the evidence of other writers where appropriate.


As indicated above, it is clear that the Muslim writers were aware that the Franks were Christians, but the extent of their familiarity with the specifics of the Catholic Christianity followed by the Franks is far more difficult to determine. In any case, it is also clear that they were keen to depict the Franks’ religious beliefs in as negative terms as possible. The Muslim writers considered their understanding of God’s wishes for and from humanity to be superior to that of the Franks; they were, after all, the recipients of theQur’an, which was understood as being among other things a corrective to the misunderstandings that had crept into the religious practices of the earlier recipients of the religion of Abraham. This sense of superiority was then accentuated by the fact that the Muslims were at war with the Franks, with the result that the Muslim writers emphasize the points of conflict between Christianity and Islam and for the most part disregard the features shared by the two faiths.

As an example, Muslim writers are strongly critical of the Christian belief that Jesus, to Muslims a prophet secondary only to Muhammad, is God incarnate. When recalling how a Frank showed him an icon of Jesus and Mary, describing it as an image of ‘God when He was young’, Usama reacts with indignation, saying, ‘May God be exalted far beyond what the infidels say!’ (Usama, 2008: 147–8). Usama’s disapproval is positively mild when compared to that of the anonymous writer of the Bahr al-Fava’id, who sometime between 1159 and 1162 noted the following:

They believe in this utter iniquity, that their God came forth from the privates of a woman and was created in a woman’s womb, and that a woman was made pregnant by their God and gave birth to him […] Anyone who believes that his God came out of a woman’s privates is quite mad; he should not be spoken to, and he has neither intelligence nor faith.

(The Sea of Precious Virtues, 1991: 232)

The author of the Bahr al-Fava’id is similarly contemptuous of Christian belief in the crucifixion and the trinity, although with regard to the latter the author distorts even the Qur’an’s misunderstanding of the trinity as consisting of God, Jesus and Mary (see, for example, Qur’an 5: 116–17). He expresses incredulity at such ideas:

The most amazing thing in the world is that the Christians say that Jesus is divine, that he is God, and then say that the Jews seized him and crucified him. How then can a God who cannot protect himself protect others? […] The Christian sects do not dispute (the belief) that Jesus is not (God’s) servant, but God, and divine, that he created the earth, that he is pre-existent, creator, and sustainer. He descended from Heaven, joined with Mary, and Jesus and Mary became one God; he was crucified and buried, and after three days he rose and ascended to Heaven.

(The Sea of Precious Virtues, 1991: 231–2)

It is worth noting the vital position that both Jesus and Mary occupy in Muslim views of their salvation history. Mary, as the one chosen by God to bear the prophet preceding Muhammad, is held in enormous esteem (indeed, Maryam [Mary] is an immensely popular name given to baby girls in the Muslim world). Jesus, likewise, is immensely respected, and Muslim understandings of the end of his time on earth state that he was not crucified, but was instead taken up to Heaven by God and will return in the end times to slay the Antichrist. Here the author of the Bahr al-Fava’id focuses deliberately and exclusively on the points where Islam and Christianity disagree, in order to promote the superiority of Islam over Christianity at a time when followers of the two faiths were at war.

Most Muslim writers do not engage with Frankish Christianity on such a detailed theological level, and reading the Muslim sources one almost gets the impression that the writers saw the Franks as blasphemers worshipping God incorrectly in often unspecified ways, pagans worshipping multiple gods (the trinity), or idolaters worshipping cross-shaped idols. The cross in particular recurs again and again in the works of the Muslim sources as a symbol of the Franks’ religious deviancy; as we have seen, the anonymous poet cited by Ibn Taghri Birdi describes crosses set up in the mihrabs of mosques [Doc. 5.i.c]. Likewise, Ibn al-Athir takes considerable satisfaction in describing the removal of the cross from the Dome of the Rock after Saladin’s conquest of Jerusalem in 1187:

On top of the Dome of the Rock was a great gilded cross. When the Muslims entered the city on the Friday, several men climbed to the top of the dome to displace the cross. When they did so and it fell, everyone in the city and outside, both Muslims and Franks, cried out as one. The Muslims shouted, ‘God is great!’ in joy, while the Franks cried out in distress and pain. People heard a clamour so great and loud that the earth well-nigh shook under them.

(Ibn al-Athir, 2007: 334)

In this way the Muslim writers associate the Franks with the pagan idolaters who opposed Muhammad’s mission in the early days of Islam, thus marking the Franks as enemies against whom the Muslims are obliged to fight, rather than merely misguided recipients of a previous revelation about the faith that the Muslims themselves follow.

Carole Hillenbrand has highlighted the particular link made by the Muslim sources between Frankish Christianity and ideas of pollution. This link is rooted in the fact that from the Muslim point of view the Franks were already physically unclean. Part of this was because they ate pigs, animals considered unclean according to Muslim teachings, but they were considered personally unhygienic as well. Ibn Jubayr, who as we have noted was not a neutral observer, states of Acre, ‘Blasphemy and oppression blaze [there], and pigs and crosses abound. [It is] filthy and squalid, completely filled with dirt and excrement’ (Ibn Jubayr, 1907: 303), thus highlighting both the porcine and human uncleanliness associated with the Franks. Usama relates the story of a Frankish knight who, in a bungled attempt to adopt Middle Eastern customs, behaved with considerable lack of decorum in a Muslim bath-house in Ma’arrat al-Nu’man; not only did he omit to wear the customary loin-cloth that would have protected his modesty, and removed that of the bath attendant, but he also had his wife brought into the bath-house, against the customary practice of women and men using the bath-houses on different days to preserve appropriate social divisions between the sexes. Usama also highlights the fact that both the knight and his wife needed to have their pubic hair shaved, with the knight in particular having hair ‘thick as a beard’, a stark contrast to Muslims, for whom this was a regular practice (Usama, 2008: 149). Usama’s no doubt exaggerated tale only serves to highlight the idea that cleanliness (along with appropriate modesty and cultural sensitivity) is a foreign concept to the Franks, who are naturally filthy creatures (Hillenbrand, 1999 a: 274–82).

This idea of lack of hygiene is then extended into the spiritual sphere, in that the Franks’ occupation of Muslim territory, and especially religious sites, is depicted as constituting a defilement of Muslim territory in a way that partakes of the physical pollution that the sources associate with the Franks. It is important to remember that the Muslims called the Church of the Holy Sepulchre the ‘Church of Garbage’. The quotation from Ibn Jubayr, above, is striking for its juxtaposition of blasphemy, pigs, crosses and dirt. By the same token, the anonymous poet mentioned above refers to pigs’ blood being used by the Christians in the mosques where they have set up their crosses [Doc. 5.i.c]. ‘Imad al-Din al-Isfahani describes the purification of the sacred spaces of Jerusalem in 1187 in (no doubt embellished) detail; this apparently included the removal of structures that the Franks had added to the Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock (including carvings of pigs on a marble tabernacle over the sacred rock); and the washing of the Dome of the Rock with water, after which it was sprinkled with rose-water and perfumed with incense (al-Isfahani, 1965: 141–3). In this fashion he depicts a spiritual purification of the sacred sites of the Temple Mount from the defiling presence of the Franks that takes the form of a physical cleansing using traditional ritual tools such as rose-water and incense. Thus we see that physical and spiritual impurity and purity are intimately bound up together in the eyes of the Muslim authors (Hillenbrand, 1999 a: 282–303).

Not every reference made to Frankish Christianity is hostile. Even the Bahr al-Fava’id notes with apparent approval the respect with which the Frankish (and Byzantine) kings treat their clergy, though one could argue that this is only in order to suggest that Muslim rulers should follow this example (The Sea of Precious Virtues, 1991: 215 and 221). Usama also expresses his respect for Christian clergy, albeit in a guarded fashion; in his Kitab al-‘Asa (Book of the Staff), an anthology of poetry and anecdotes on walking staves, he admits his admiration for a group of elderly Christian ascetics whom he saw in a church at the tomb of John the Baptist near Nablus. Usama was initially disappointed that he had never seen Muslim ascetics showing similar devotion, but at a later date his concerns were eased when he saw the pious observances of a group of Sufis in Damascus, which were ‘greater than those of the priests’ (Usama, 2008: 253–4). Fabricated or not, naturally Usama is aware of the message that such an anecdote sends about the relative merits of Muslim and Christian ascetics; nevertheless, it is interesting that Usama, like the anonymous author of the Bahr al-Fava’id, was at least willing to concede that some of the Christians demonstrated admirable piety. However, the over-arching message of this anecdote in some senses epitomizes the wider Muslim sentiment towards the Franks’ religious beliefs; even those Muslims who accepted that their opponents’ Christianity had some value still regarded the Franks as being, ultimately, inferior in matters of religion.


Usama is our major source for Muslim views on Frankish legal procedures. Employing his typical mix of negative and (in this case seemingly) positive stories, Usama provides three anecdotes describing his experiences of Latin justice. Two of these are clearly negative; in one, he describes a case of trial by combat in which he saw two men fight to the death to determine the truth of a case, commenting, ‘And that was but a taste of their jurisprudence and their legal procedure, may God curse them!’ (Usama, 2008: 151–2). The second concerns a case of trial by ordeal, at which the accused’s guilt or innocence was determined by whether he would, respectively, float or sink in a cask of water; the accused floated and was punished for his guilt by being blinded [Doc. 14.i]. Again, Usama expresses his distaste by proclaiming, ‘May God curse them’. Yet Usama also notes a counter-example, in that he describes an incident when he himself sought justice from King Fulk of Jerusalem (r. 1131–43) after the lord of Banias stole some sheep from the territory of Damascus during a period of truce. Fulk turned the case over to a group of knights who, after consulting with one another, ruled in Usama’s favour [Doc. 14.i].

In this way Usama provides evidence that seems on the surface to suggest that at times Frankish justice is arbitrary and violent, but at other times legal rulings are made through reason and consultation. Yet as Paul Cobb has shown, even the more civilized example of Frankish legal procedure would have struck Usama as strange and nonsensical, for in Muslim society there were scholars who were trained in the niceties of legal procedure, devoting their careers to exploring and applying the law as derived from theQur’an and the sacred traditions of the faith. The capacity to make fair and just legal rulings was thus ascribed to those appropriately qualified, not to men who were respected for their virtues as warriors; the ability to fight on the battlefield was not seen as something that made one an expert lawyer! The examples of trial by ordeal and trial by combat noted above, in the meantime, would have struck Usama as superstitious, barbaric appeals for divine intervention followed by vicious penalties inflicted on those found guilty. As Cobb has noted, the punishments themselves would not have upset Usama; indeed, medieval Islamic legal penalties included punishments such as death and amputation. However, the nature of the legal procedures that led to their imposition struck him as unreasonable, illogical and lacking the true divine guidance that Muslims found in their own legal tradition (Cobb, 2005: 109–11).


Usama’s depiction of Frankish medicine is perhaps more genuinely balanced. Some of his depictions are indeed highly critical; in possibly his most famous anecdote, Usama describes a Frankish physician who disregarded the reasonable remedies of a Syrian Christian doctor and applied more violent treatments that resulted in the deaths of two patients [Doc. 14.ii]. As Cobb has indicated, this tale is probably intended more as a critique of the Frankish physician’s haste to adopt the most drastic solution than of his methods per se, and scholars have been too quick to see it as representative of a vast gap between European and Islamic medical knowledge, when in fact both traditions based their treatments on a mix of the medical science of the Classical world and folk beliefs, and also enjoyed relative parity in this period (Cobb, 2005: 107–8). Usama balances this and other negative depictions with positive ones, including a Frankish remedy for scrofula that he used himself [Doc. 14.ii] and a case of a Frankish doctor washing wounds with vinegar, leading to their being disinfected and healing (Usama, 2008: 146). Thus his attitude towards Latin medical practices comes across as rather mixed, possibly more so than any of his other views on the Franks.

Sexual morality

We have already seen Muslim writers expressing concern for the safety and virtue of their womenfolk, both on an individual level and as an expression of wider family honour. Given this concern, it is not surprising that Muslim writers use negative depictions of Frankish attitudes towards women as a way to cast aspersions on the Franks as a whole. Usama states that the Franks ‘possess nothing in the way of regard for honour or propriety’, which he illustrates with a number of anecdotes about Frankish lack of concern for the virtue of their women. Probably the best known of these is an incident that Usama claims to have witnessed himself, which concerns a Frankish wine-seller who comes home and finds another Frank in bed with his wife; after a brief exchange, the wine-seller tells the other man, ‘If you do this again, we’ll have an argument, you and I!’ and Usama comments, shocked, ‘And that was all the disapproval he would muster and the extent of his sense of propriety!’ [Doc. 14.iii]. Carole Hillenbrand has described this as ‘a cleverly constructed apocryphal tale which plays shamelessly on the prejudices of Usama’s readers’, noting in particular that Usama is careful to enhance the critique of the Franks by not only highlighting their lack of propriety but also depicting the cuckolded husband as a wine-seller, a morally questionable figure in the eyes of a Muslim audience (Hillenbrand, 1999 a: 348). However, if we accept that this is a constructed tale, despite Usama’s claims, we can actually gain an insight into Usama’s relations with the Franks that he may not himself have been aware of. It actually seems likely that the tale, with its threefold questioning and punch-line, was in its original form a joke, and the fact that at the end of this exchange the husband still seems unaware that he has been cuckolded makes it heavily reminiscent of the fabliaux, European folktales in which stupid husbands do not realize that their wives have been unfaithful to them. The fact that the wine-seller seems to sell wine by letting people taste from the bottle that he carries, then is paid at the end of the day with that bottle, reinforces the idea that he is an idiot who can be outwitted by his wife and her lover. As we have seen, Usama claims to have had friends among the Franks, and it is thus not unrealistic to suggest that this story was told to the Shayzari emir by one of his Frankish friends, as a joke, but that Usama did not get it, as revealed by his final, shocked comment (Christie, 2004: 73–4).

Whatever the truth of this, Usama balances this and his other demonstrations of Frankish lack of concern for their women’s honour with a tale that also acts as an effective contrast to the bath-house story mentioned above. He describes visiting a bath-house in the Frankish-held city of Tyre, where he saw a (presumably Frankish) father who had brought his daughter in to wash her hair. The daughter’s mother was dead, so the father had brought her into the bath-house on a ‘man day’, despite this being against normal custom. Usama notes that the young woman was so well covered up that his servant had to lift the hem of her clothing to establish that she was indeed female, a marked contrast to the immodesty of the knight and his wife mentioned above, and this care for modesty, combined with the father’s clear concern for his daughter’s welfare, led Usama to make a comment that suggests that he himself was willing to subordinate propriety to the dictates of need: ‘That’s a kind thing you’re doing […] This will bring you heavenly reward’[Doc. 14.iii].

The Muslim sources show mixed attitudes towards Frankish women themselves. The poet Ibn al-Qaysarani seems to have been enraptured by some of the Frankish women, writing effusive poems praising their beauty [Doc. 15.i]. He was not the only Muslim to be struck by the attractions of Frankish women; Ibn Jubayr remarks on the beauty of a bride whom he saw in a wedding procession in Tyre, before commenting, ‘We take refuge with God from the temptation of the sight!’ (Ibn Jubayr, 1907: 305–6). Others were not as impressed; ‘Imad al-Din is typically vitriolic, providing an extended pornographic passage in which he depicts women who arrived with the forces of the Third Crusade essentially as religious prostitutes who sought to support the crusade through sexual support of the crusaders. In the process he takes the opportunity to impugn both Christianity and the wider honour of the Franks in general, remarking that these women saw sexual intercourse as a form of Eucharist, and that married men, among whom he includes priests, were not criticized by the Franks for sexual activity. In this we see particular slurs cast against Christian attitudes towards the Eucharist and priestly celibacy [Doc. 15.ii].

Muslim attitudes towards women actually fighting in the Frankish forces, and indeed women fighters in general, seem to have been almost uniformly negative, something that resulted from an over-arching assumption that women should be restricted to the domestic sphere, while men should be the public faces of the family both in social life and on the battlefield. Indeed, Islamic religious scholars normally prohibited women from fighting in battle. The Muslim sources thus usually express amazement when they become aware of women fighting. Baha’ al-Din notes that upon being brought a bow taken from a Frankish woman who fought against the Muslims at Acre in July 1191, Saladin was ‘greatly surprised’, and ‘Imad al-Din likewise remarks on Frankish women fighting in the Crusades with a clearly critical description of their activities on the battlefield (Ibn Shaddad, 2001: 158; and Doc. 15.ii). Of course, it is difficult to determine how far we should take such accounts at face value; suggesting that one’s enemies were unable to restrict their women to their appropriate gender roles was a way of questioning their masculinity and hence denigrating them. However, there were women who fought in the Crusades, and this seems to have surprised the Muslims who encountered them.

Usama is an important exception to the general rule that Muslim writers disapproved of women taking part in battle. In his Kitab al-I‘tibar he highlights a number of cases of women who did so directly or indirectly. For example, his mother led the defence of Shayzar against Nizari Isma‘ilis referred to above, distributing weapons to the defenders; during the same battle his aunt put on armour and shamed his male cousin into fighting; and an elderly servant named Funun veiled herself, took up a sword and plunged into the fray. Such activities prompted Usama to remark, ‘No one can deny that noble women possess disdain for danger, courage for the sake of honour and sound judgment’ (Usama, 2008: 135–7; Cobb, 2005: 12–14). However, we should not see in this a suggestion that Usama was a proto-feminist; these women took action in cases of need, when their home was attacked, rather than actively seeking to go on a military campaign. Usama is unlikely to have approved of women being involved in combat if the circumstances were less dire.

The cultural barrier?

We have already seen that Usama’s understanding of Frankish humour was limited by his lack of familiarity with European folktales. Another of his anecdotes is similarly revealing about his flawed understanding of European society:

In the army of King Fulk, son of Fulk, there was a respected Frankish knight who had come from their country just to go on pilgrimage and then return home. He grew to like my company and he became my constant companion, calling me ‘my brother’. Between us there were ties of amity and sociability. When he resolved to take to the sea back to his country, he said to me:

‘My brother, I am leaving for my country. I want you to send your son (my son, who was with me, was fourteen years old) with me to my country, where he can observe the knights and acquire reason and chivalry. When he returns, he will be like a truly rational man.’

And so there fell upon my ears words that would never come from a truly rational head! For even if my son were taken captive, his captivity would not be as long as any voyage he might take to the land of the Franks [or: his captivity could not bring him a worse misfortune than carrying him into the lands of the Franks].

So I said, ‘By your life, I was hoping for this very same thing. But the only thing that has prevented me from doing so is the fact that his grandmother adores him and almost did not allow him to come here with me until she had exacted an oath from me that I would return him to her.’

‘Your mother,’ he asked, ‘she is still alive?’

‘Yes,’ I replied.

‘Then do not disobey her,’ he said.

(Usama, 2008: 144, 2000: 161)

As a result of ambiguities in the Arabic the precise cause for Usama’s concern, with regard to his son being taken away to Europe, is not apparent. He may have been worried that his son might be corrupted by European ways, or he may have been genuinely distressed at the thought of having to part with him for a long period of time. One could also sensibly expect that a visibly Middle Eastern boy might encounter difficulties in Europe, even though a noble patron might mitigate these somewhat, which does lead one to question whether Usama’s friend seriously intended his offer to be accepted or was simply making it as a token of his esteem. In any case it is clear that Usama was not aware of the magnitude of the offer that his Frankish friend was making. In Europe at the time it was common for the sons of noble houses to be fostered out to other households, usually those of their father’s lord or another prominent nobleman, in order to learn courtly etiquette and the arts of war, which paved their way for entry into knightly society. Thus having one’s son accepted into such a ‘training programme’ was of great importance. Usama’s friend was, then, offering to assist with his son’s training and in the process to do Usama himself an immense favour. However, Usama, lacking a deep understanding of European knightly conventions, did not understand the significance of the offer and only saw it as a bizarre suggestion. We are reminded again that there were limits (of which he himself was unaware) to Usama’s understanding of Frankish ways.


Despite the obfuscating influences of propagandistic agendas and hostile viewpoints, it is clear from the sources that the Muslims and Franks interacted with each other on a number of levels both on and off the battlefield. Crusaders and Muslims might fight each other, but they might also form alliances against other Franks, other Muslims, or both, or they might make truces and live alongside each other in conditions of relative peace. They might visit each others’ cities, trade, perform pilgrimages to sacred sites in each others’ territories, or simply spend time together interacting socially, exchanging medical remedies, attending each others’ festivities or attempting to swap jokes. However, there were limits to how far they could come to understand each other, limits that derived from the legacy of violence between them, a lack of shared historical and societal formation and, above all, from attitudes of religious and cultural superiority that prevented them from ever seeing each other as true equals. These insurmountable barriers would continue to poison Latin–Muslim relations and would eventually contribute to rising hostility against the Franks, leading to their ejection from the Levantine coast by the Mamluks.


For a detailed overview of the main issues addressed in this chapter, see Carole Hillenbrand, The Crusades: Islamic Perspectives (1999 a). Developments during the period covering the First and Second Crusades are also discussed in Niall Christie, Levantine Attitudes towards the Franks during the Early Crusades (490/1096–564/1169) (1999). For a study of the military aspects of the Muslim response to the Crusades, see in the first instance David Nicolle, Crusader Warfare, especially Volume 2, which deals directly with the Muslim and Mongol armies and strategy (2007); and ibid., Arms and Armour of the Crusading Era, 1050–1350: Islam, Eastern Europe and Asia (1999). Readers of French may also wish to consult Abbès Zouache, Armées et Combats en Syrie de 491/1098 à 569/1174: Analyse Comparée des Chroniques Médiévales Latines et Arabes (2008). On Muslim castles, see also Kate Raphael, Muslim Fortresses in the Levant: Between Crusaders and Mongols (2011). A good introduction to the situation of Muslims under Frankish rule is Benjamin Kedar’s article, ‘The Subjected Muslims of the Frankish Levant’ (1990). A number of scholars have looked at peacemaking and treaties between Muslims and Franks. The standard work on Muslim legal teaching about both war and peace is Majid Khadduri’s War and Peace in the Law of Islam (1955), but for good starting points for further enquiry about treaties specifically during the period under discussion see also Yvonne Friedman’s ‘Peacemaking: Perceptions and Practices in the Medieval Latin East’ (2011); and Gideon Weigert’s ‘A Note on Hudna: Peace Making in Islam’ (1997). On trade and cultural interchange, see initially Aziz S. Atiya’s Crusade, Commerce and Culture (1962), but for qualification see also David Abulafia, ‘The Role of Trade in Muslim–Christian Contact during the Middle Ages’ (1994). For an excellent and extensive treatment of funduqs, see Olivia Remie Constable, Housing the Stranger in the Mediterranean World: Lodging, Trade, and Travel in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages(2003). On Usama, see Paul M. Cobb, Usama ibn Munqidh: Warrior Poet of the Age of the Crusades (2005); and his translation of both the Shayzari emir’s ‘memoirs’ and extracts from the latter’s other works, The Book of Contemplation: Islam and the Crusades(Usama, 2008).

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