10 things you should know about the medieval Crusader State armies of Levant


The Crusades allude to a controversial subject that often tends to go beyond historicity of events to account for religious prejudices and political statements. But intriguingly enough, the Crusader States in themselves present an interesting parcel of history, with their intrinsic social and military systems often bringing the European feudal ‘flair’ to Levant, while at times showcasing a syncretic scope that was borne by the fusion of different cultures. So without further ado, let us take a gander at ten things you should know about the medieval Crusader State armies of Levant.

1) Poverty and mules –


Image courtesy of Scout.com

While chroniclers had ‘poetically’ dealt with the nobility and leaders of the First Crusade, the fact remains that most of these Europeans who participated in the armed endeavor were ‘desperately’ poor. In fact, at times the objective of reaching and conquering Jerusalem seemed so far-fetched to many of the ordinary folks and soldiers who accompanied their leaders that they plundered and looted just for survival, as opposed to making profitable gains. And at times starvation and poverty reached maddening levels (like during the Siege of Antioch) that fueled fanatical behavior on the part of some of the poor Crusaders. One pertinent example would relate to the so-called Tafurs, a group of destitute Crusades who seemingly cultivated bizarre codes of conduct that preventing them from acquiring wealth while allowing murder, rape and even (possibly fabricated) cannibalization of their enemies.

Another factor that popular history seems to miss is that the original Crusader army that initially made its way across Anatolia, was much reduced in size when it arrived at the gates of Jerusalem. The reasons for this could be many, including attrition, desertion and disease. The reduction of available military forces was particularly harsh for the knights since the scope encompassed the loss of many horses. To that end, by circa 1098 AD (and some years afterwards), many of the supporting Crusader cavalry in Syria possibly fought on mules, with horses being reduced to mere hundreds in number.

2) The ‘disadvantage’ of depopulation –


Image courtesy of Scout.com

Suffice it to say, when the First Crusade was finally successful in capturing Jerusalem, the act was considered as nothing less than a miracle. But beyond its symbolic ‘miraculous’ scope, the city of Jerusalem itself was thoroughly depopulated, and thus its strategic value was questioned. One of the reasons for such dire circumstances directly pertained to Crusaders’ actions, which led to the barring of Muslims and Jews from the Holy City, while many of the native Christians also fled the settlement.

Even on the Crusaders side, their military presence was becoming precarious, with many of the Europeans returning home after their ‘successful’ crusade. The remaining few hundred Europeans were so paltry in number that they barely managed to guard the gates of the city. As a solution, many of the native Christians were encouraged to migrate to Jerusalem. Additionally European settlers were also given concessions to ‘travel’ to the Holy Land, while the port cities and towns (that were still under Muslim control) were wrested away with the significant aid provided by the fleets of the maritime Italian city-states (like Venice and Genoa). Unfortunately for the Kingdom of Jerusalem, most of these measures failed in the long-term, with stringently adopted feudal structures inhibiting the growth of the inland areas and commercial monopoly of the Italians dictating the coastal areas.

3) The conflict between tradition and survival –


As we mentioned in the earlier entry, manpower shortage had always been a ‘theme’ for the established Crusader States in Levant. But 11th century also brought forth the stricter ideals of feudalism from Europe, and combined with the military origins of many of the Crusader leaders, led to a rather ‘conservative’ social structure that was not at all conducive to the dynamic scope of the Holy Land. In essence, the Crusaders (especially in the Kingdom of Jerusalem) faced the dilemma of co-existing with their Muslim neighbors (who grew powerful and organized over time) and the indoctrinated urge to conquer more lands in the name of Christianity – which often fueled half-addressed strategies and confusing political maneuvers.

Moreover, given the hierarchical nature of feudal laws and structure of the realms, along with shortage of man-power that was rather crippling to a feudal society (thus leading to the emergence of military fiefs), many of the Crusader leaders failed to take advantage of the potential commercial aspect of their coastal domains. During the later years, when the Kingdom of Jerusalem was confined to such coastal strips, the situation became even more complex with Italian merchants controlling much of the trade and monetary benefits.

4) Senechal and Connetable –


The First Crusade invited separate army contingents from both northern and southern parts of France, along with divisions from Germany and Norman-Italy. Suffice it to say, given the ‘French’ origin of many of these earlier crusaders, the Kingdom of Jerusalem adopted the political customs and offices of the Kingdom of France. Among them, the senechal was possibly the highest rank holder within the offices of the state. And though many of his duties were ceremonial in nature, the senechal was responsible for doling out (high-level) justice, inspecting castles, organizing garrisons and most importantly arranging the supply chains for strategic military networks.

Interestingly enough, in spite of these ‘core’ responsibilities, the senechal was just one member of the king’s royal bataille (division). On the other hand, it was the connetable who actually commanded the army under the king’s name, while also representing the monarch in the High Court (when the king was absent). His second-in-command was the marechal, who was responsible for paying the mercenaries, organizing the fighting divisions and playing his supervisory role in regards to the discipline and equipment of the army.

5) The flurry of fiefs –

Ruins of the fief of Gibelet (modern Byblos).

Ruins of the fief of Gibelet (modern Byblos).

In the hierarchy of the feudal structure existing in most Crusader states, the king was viewed as the highest ranking ‘noble’ among the competing political elite. Now in accordance to the feudal norms, the realm was divided into estates and smaller fiefs, with these parcels of lands being governed by the lords and the knights. Unsurprisingly, in the Crusader states, these fiefs tended to far smaller than their European counterparts – though the responsibilities of the knight holding the fief was more rigorous, given the mercurial situations both inside the kingdoms and along their borders. For example, when it came to military obligation, a knight could be called for an unlimited period to serve in the military.

At the same time, the king also had greater responsibilities towards his knights, because the Crusader leaders clearly valued their military prowess (a factor rather reinforced when combined with the occasional shortage of man-power). To that end, it was the king who had to pay for the knight’s horse and expensive equipment when the latter was campaigning outside the traditional borders. Furthermore the monarch even had to promise to replace the knight’s lost horses or animals (if any) in the form of the restor.

Now given the complex character of the Crusader kingdoms and the numerous overlapping domains of control (from various lords), the system of fiefs was complicated. At times the fief holder (knight) owed his allegiance and service to more than one lord, while at other instances some of the fiefs were held by the Church and even women. Many of the lords themselves, unlike their 11th-12th century European counterparts, did not even live in their estates; rather they collected their revenues while residing in neighboring towns and cities. And lastly, struggling to cope with the cost of the approaching pilgrims from Europe, along with landless peasants, the Crusader realms also introduced the fiefs de soudée, or money-fiefs, that were basically tolls for markets, ports and bridges – mostly owned by ‘lordly’ urban dwellers.

6) The ‘mixed’ knightly class –


With so much talk about knights and fiefs, we must understand that given the paucity of available man-power for military, not every knight in the Crusader states was ‘European’. In fact, after the generation Post First Crusade, many of the Europeans married into local influential families, thus leading to the emergence of the ‘mixed’ poulains as a military class. Some of these poulains were endowed with title of knights, and as such formed an enthusiastic base for Catholicism in the Holy Land. In the northern Principality of Antioch, mostly dominated by the Normans, a few of the ‘local’ Armenians were also raised to the status of knighthood. All of these knights were expected to form the armored fist of Crusader heavy cavalry, often supported by non-knightly armored and mounted sergeants.

And even beyond strictly military roles, the high social standing of a knight meant that he could be exchanged in return for a slain knight in battle (though such practices were not the norm, especially in the latter part of Crusader history). Interestingly enough, the Kingdom of Jerusalem (possibly) had a particular statute that excused the knights from fighting on foot when defending towns and castles.

7) Mercenaries, Turcopoles and local troops –


Credit: Art Central

As British historian Dr. David C. Nicolle makes it clear (in The Crusades), mercenaries were pretty common in the Crusader states armies, especially by the later times. Some of these mercenaries were basically employed knights, who lacked fiefs, and thus were paid salaries by their overlords. Other mercenaries possibly comprised the highly professional crossbowmen, and their effectiveness against their foes was so much pronounced that the Saracens often called crossbows qaws Ferengi, or ‘Frankish bow’.

But arguably the more fascinating soldiery was provided by the Turcopoles (roughly translated to ‘sons of Turks’), who were originally converted Muslim prisoners of war (and later possibly descended from many such converts). Similar to their eastern ghulam counterparts, they mainly served as horsearchers with penchant for focused volleys, as opposed to the agile and light Turkic horsearchers. In essence, they crucially filled the gap of mobile-missile contingents in many Crusader armies, and thus were considered invaluable to many military actions. To that end, in spite of their non-knightly status, few of the Turcopoles were even offered special fiefs and inducted into the division of royal Turcopoles, commanded by the state-appointed grand turcopolier.

The Crusader States also took the aid of local troops, when it came to dangerous mountain passes and unfamiliar countrysides. One of the most effective of these ‘native’ soldiers pertained to Christian Maronite folks of Lebanon, many of whom functioned as light horsemen and archers. Intriguingly enough, there were also times when the Crusader kingdoms incorporated Shia Muslims (like Alawites) within their ranks, especially from the Syrian coastal mountains. Over time, these hardy hill-men called jabaliya, often tended to side with the Hashashins (Assassins) of the Nizari Ismaili sect.

8) The advent of Military Orders –


Knights Templar charging into battle.

Among the varied army compositions and contingents, arguably the Military Orders established in Levant (and in Europe) had the highest success rates when it came to military encounters. In fact, the general notion is quite true that the Templars took a vow to defend their fellow Christians from ‘foreign’ intrusions, especially in the Outremer, the conglomeration of Crusader States in Levant. But interestingly enough, the proclivity of the Military Orders towards martial pursuits was only developed as a reactionary measure, rather than a (starting) ideology that dictated religious warfare. To that end, historically, in the aftermath of the First Crusade, some of the Christians warriors actually decided to put away their swords in favor of a monastic lifestyle based around the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

But with the establishment of the Christian entities in the Holy Land, the scenario became a logistical nightmare for the nascent Outremer kingdoms – because a great number of pilgrims flocked to these newly conquered lands (as we fleetingly mentioned before in entry 5). And as more visitors turned up around the confines of Jerusalem, local bandits (that also included Muslims who lost their lands) took advantage of the chaos and attacked these common pilgrims. Afflicted by such unconventional forays, the monastic warriors decided to once again take up their swords (though in the later centuries, some of their actions turned fanatical). As a result, pertinent military brotherhoods were formed, and one of them entailed the Templar Order, officially approved by the Church in 1120 AD. Other ‘effective’ orders included the Order of Hospitallers, who had their origins from the Amalfitan hospital in Jerusalem; and Teutonic Order, who were initially composed of a small number of mercenaries and volunteer soldiers.

As for the organization of these brotherhoods, the Templars basically mirrored the institutions of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, with its command structure dominated by titles like senechal and marechal. The soldiery supported by this structure was usually composed of a small percentage of knights (who formed the bulk of heavy cavalry) and they headed the other warrior-brothers from the Order, like the sergents (in French) or servientes in Latin. The latter groups played a supporting role in the battlefield, by forming solid infantry lines or at times doubling up as screening medium cavalry.

9) Other allies and urban fraternities –


Image courtesy of Total War Center.

Now while from the geographical perspective it may seem that the Crusaders Kingdoms were isolated in Levant, beset by enemies on all sides, the truth is that they did have regional allies. One of the overlooked realms in such circumstances, pertained to Cilician Armenia, a kingdom that itself became increasingly feudalized by 13th century AD. Many of their Armenian warriors served in the armies of the Crusader States (especially the Principality of Antioch), as both cavalry and dedicated archers. Similarly, though not geographically connected, both mercenaries and soldiers from the kingdoms of Georgia and Trebizond (one of the remnants of the Eastern Roman ‘Byzantine’ Empire) fought in Crusader State armies, each with their indigenous styles.

Incredibly enough, another overlooked scope for the Crusader State armies relates to the bevy of urban militias who formed their own fraternities. By the 13th century, when the inland domains of the Outremer were gradually gulped down by the Islamic re-conquests, many of the refugees fled to the coastal towns and cities. Some of these ‘rich’ settlements continued to expand with integrated communes that allowed the thriving of urban militia contingents, sometimes with their own banners and organizations. These fraternities even provided regular soldiers with both cavalry and infantry arms in defense of the city – and at times these militias were also paid when they campaigned outside the set ‘borders’.

10) Evolution of tactics –


As we mentioned in the introductory paragraph, “at times [the Crusader Kingdoms] showcased a syncretic scope that was borne by the fusion of different cultures.” The change of their military tactics over the decades (and even centuries) is one ambit that best reflects the influence of variant military stratagems, some of which were used in the Byzantine and the East. For example, by late 12th century AD, some Crusaders believed in the employment of long-term military strategies that entailed the use of diversionary raids and ambushes rather than full-scale battles (given their dwindling military resources).

Even on the tactical level, the Crusaders armies relied more on co-ordination between their different contingents and troops-types, like the ‘partnership’ system between the heavy cavalry, infantry and crossbowmen, who planned and progressed together to keep the mounted foes at bay. This was in contrast to western Europe where the nobility and knights paved the tactical outcomes for the supporting armies in most battles. To that end, the heavy cavalry forces of the Crusaders tended to be smaller, and these ‘curtailed’ groups practiced the habit of repeated charging and harassing, as opposed to a grandiosely conceived single massed charge.

Flanking maneuvers and visually identifiable rally points were also adopted with more zest, with the latter example pertaining to the Carroccio, a four-wheeled war altar that carried the cross – originally used by the medieval Italian Republics. Moreover the advantage of speedy co-ordinations and lightning attacks was much appreciated, as was evident from the use of mounted infantrymen, like their Muslim foes. These mounted soldiers often accompanied their cavalry brethren in making fast forays and raids, especially along caravan routes. But apart from attacking maneuvers, the Crusader armies also adopted defensive measures actively on the battlefield, like use of wooden barricades (possibly learnt from their Fatimid foes). This was complemented by the use of siege engines in even open battles, while their own infantry were guarded by natural parameters like steep cliffs and hidden ravines.


Sources: University of Michigan / Medieval Warfare / Fanaticus / Bar-Ilan University

Book References: The Crusader World (By Adrian Boas) / The Crusades (By David C. Nicolle)

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About the Author

Dattatreya Mandal
Dattatreya Mandal has a bachelor's degree in Architecture (and associated History of Architecture) and a fervent interest in History. Formerly, one of the co-owners of an online architectural digest, he is currently the founder/editor of Realmofhistory.com. The latter is envisaged as an online compendium that mirrors his enthusiasm for ancient history, military, mythology, and historical evolution of architecture.
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