Latin feudalism in Palestine

The installation of the Crusaders in Palestine in XIe century gives birth to an original world: an oriental feudalism born from multiple tinkering between different political cultures, within which the lords wield weapons, money and words, in perpetual competition.

The history of the Crusades and the Latin East represents its own field, with its dedicated university chairs, its specialized journals and its reserved conferences. It is, moreover, a field largely dominated by research in the English language, while the French school, once a precursor, seems rather in retreat since the disappearance of great orientalists like Claude Cahen (1991) and Jean Richard (2021), or the withdrawal progressive from other teachers. In fact, faced with the flood of publications coming mainly from across the Atlantic, across the Channel or from Israel, can we still bring something new to the crusades?? Indeed, the corpus of written sources is not extensible and has, for the most part, been said for a long time. Certainly, many new developments still come from monumental archology. But if some emblematic sites remain more or less open to research in Israel, such as the castles of Belvoir, Margat or Atlit, the heritage of Syria and Lebanon has become inaccessible.

However, it is essentially on the written heritage that Florian Besson has based his approach to lords of the holy land. The author relies on a thousand charters, a few legal features (in addition to Seatsessentially the Book to the King), and above all around a hundred chronicles and other pilgrimage stories written in Latin, Greek, Armenian and Arabic. This documentation, mastered in an exhaustive manner, is used with great finesse. The author knows how to draw from these varied texts the most significant lexicon of the description of social facts and analyze the situations which serve his purpose. He skillfully uses, for example, the no side offered by Arab or Byzantine authors, when these relate to socio-political uses specific to the Latins, such as vassalage, advice or even drawing lots.

Ethnogenesis of an oriental feudalism: the story of a DIY

Frdric II

The story begins with the First Crusade, at the beginning of the XIe century, when crusaders and settlers from diverse backgrounds, but united by the same Latin and Christian culture, made these lands of Palestine their new homeland. Then the documentation partly dictates the chronology, since F. Besson chooses to stop his story at the moment when French is widespread in charters and on coins. This trend coincides with the return of the Holy City to the Latins in 1229, when Emperor Frederick II, architect of this diplomatic success, girded the crown of Jerusalem. From this moment on, the destiny of the Latin states seemed to escape local political actors, to be more than ever linked to the great balances dictated by the dominant powers in Europe.

In fact, what interests the author is precisely the establishment of a new world, with its tinkering and its accommodations, perceptible for example in the fluctuation of the vocabulary which designates social phenomena. The reflection focuses on the warrior aristocracy, which is naturally the best documented by the sources, even if the other categories of the population appear in their relations with these elites: the peasantry and the eastern Christian minorities who are in a position of domination.; people from the church, notably the brothers of the religious-military orders themselves coming from these aristocratic elites and who can be, in turn, partners or competitors.

The possession of land, anthroponymic customs, vassalic and client relationships, the sharing of rights over lordship, the role of castles in the control of territory and the symbolism of power, the mastery of space, these are the practices, always relevant analyses, which are the foundation of seigniorial domination. A domination that the author refers, among other things, to right to take and at power to make. Arriving from Europe with their culture and practices, the nobles therefore invented a new society in the East. They had to find a place for themselves, build a commanding legitimacy by borrowing from local habits, themselves inherited from various traditions, Byzantine and Arab. For example, in terms of taxation and levies on the peasantry, the Latin lordship developed a combination, which is more DIY (p. 163), between various systems that already coexisted. In their social and cultural interactions with the endogenous Muslim and Eastern Christian elites from all walks of life, the Latins have forged a new identity for themselves and this in all conscience. Hence the idea of ​​interbreeding, of invention of a new oriental identity that the author goes so far as to describe as ethnogenic (p. 282).

A hybrid and hierarchical company

The fact remains that this society remains, the image of the Europe ofeXIIe centuries, fully fodal. It is, in other words, a face-to-face society where social and political ties are still largely personal, despite the strengthening of the framework of the princely government. Consequently, the analysis is based on a constant comparative openness, because if the feudalism of the Latin East was not exactly imported since the West (p. 156), it has never evolved in isolation and has therefore never been pure as the old school historians thought. Adapted to Eastern realities, the feudalism of the kingdom of Jerusalem shared practices that could be found in the Plantagenet space or even in Languedoc.

On many points, F. Besson pays homage to masters like Marc Bloch and Georges Duby. Of course, the respect owed to the great does not prevent us from identifying interpretations that are now refuted, such as that of the corruption of a feudalism, it must be recognized, often idealized by the growing monetization of society. But the author is also nourished by the latest renewals of research, sometimes revisited in the light of Bourdieusian or Foucauldian thought. Thus, the work offers a new vision of the territorial organization of lordships and principalities, showing how they fit into the pattern of border societies. It further fuels the debate on the violence of seigniorial society: if the violence was real, it was never unbridled, because, at the same time, it was justified by real political motives and limited by a moral and customary framework.

In the same vein, the nobles knew how to perfectly control their emotions within the framework of a society based on agonistic relationships. The author describes nobles in permanent competition, marked by a obsession with ranking (p. 330): it is who will show themselves to be the most valiant in combat, the most generous in their generosity, the most beautiful speaker, the most concerned about their image, until orientalization conscious and decided appearance and lifestyle. Remarkable are also the analyzes on the uses and values ​​of the word council, oath, debates and deliberations or the scattered passages on equestrian culture. The horse is considered an instrument of power on which we even stand to talk among ourselves (p. 390), while mobility allows a mastery of space greater than that of the rest of society (p. 75-76).

like the lineages or individuals whose trajectories he traces, the author therefore establishes constant bridges between the eastern and western shores of the Mediterranean. But it also underlines very well the profound originalities of the new plantation, according to the expression of William of Tyre, of the Latin world in Palestine. Let us note, among other things, the role of money which circulated more early and abundantly in the Orient than in Europe and which permeated the practices of the nobility; the omnipresence of war, essential in the legitimization of royalty and engine of the economy; a conflict within the seigniorial courts, marked by a frequency of assassinations which could refer to processes quite familiar to the Mamluks or Byzantium.

Retrocession of Jerusalem Frdric II by Sultan Al-Kmil
Giovanni Villani, 14e century

It is therefore a society in all its complexity and dynamics that F. Besson reveals. Social stratifications and identity affiliations, sometimes even religious, appear fluid, while the recomposition of noble factions and circles of loyalty around the lord suggests agency as the degree of politicization of an aristocracy keen to participate in monarchical government.

An entry into the complexity of the medieval world

Remarkably written with a sense of formula, equipped with partial conclusions helping to never lose the thread, the book will not only bring a refreshing vision to specialists who harbor a certain perplexity in the face of the saturation of publications on the crusades. Above all, it represents a beautiful entry into the history of the Middle Ages and more particularly of feudal society.

Although it comes from an academic exercise, a doctoral thesis defended in 2017, the book indeed has a laudable pedagogical concern. This is evidenced by the fairly frequent allusions to the common sense maintained about the Middle Ages, notably by school culture, whether it be clichés about feudal anarchy or biases conveyed by the cartographic representations of lordship or Latin states. Because, if he is a specialist in the Latin East, F. Besson has also made himself known in the field of medievalism, that is to say the study of the reception of the Middle Ages in our contemporary cultures. For medievalists themselves, medievalism must be considered as a reflective and heuristic tool allowing new questions to be asked about a certain number of common concepts. But for the media and the general public, it also brings a salutary hygiene of historyin the sense that it deconstructs the political and ideological uses of the past.

Now, at a time when the crusades and an alleged clash of civilizations are the subject of easy exploitation, the history of the Latin East challenges any attempt at simplification and any binary reasoning. As the author rightly points out in conclusion, When the Crusaders arrived in the East in 1097, they discovered no less than seven Christianities, two Judaisms and at least three or four Islams, not counting the Samaritans, the Zoroastrians and a few passing Buddhists… (p. 458). From this meeting a company was born hybrid Or mtisse, even if it turned out, in the end, to be rather fragile and fleeting. Less than three generations after Frédric’s visit to Jerusalem IIthe Mamluks themselves produced many hybridizations ethnic and cultural had finished erasing the last traces of the Latin presence in this other space and which, however, Westerners still considered as the Middle East.