Post-classical history

Literature of Outremer and Cyprus

The literary production of the Frankish minority in Outremer and Cyprus was written mainly in Latin and French and followed the patterns of contemporary western European tradition, but also presented some interesting and original texts. French and Latin literature coexisted in Outremer and Cyprus with the literary production of the indigenous population (written in Arabic, Armenian, Greek, Syriac, and Hebrew) and with oral narrative traditions that were extremely vigorous in a context of restricted literacy. This coexistence occasionally produced mutual influences, but one has to acknowledge that cross-cultural connections in this respect were weaker than might be expected.

Outremer and Cyprus were multicultural but not particularly intellectual societies: conditions were more favorable for warriors, merchants, or pious monks, than for scholars or professional writers. There were no universities in the Latin East, nor important schools or other kinds of religious or secular centers of instruction: William of Tyre, the most distinguished writer fromOutremer, was born in Jerusalem but educated in Europe. The ruling class did not develop any long-term cultural policy to promote the activity of poets, writers, translators, scribes, and illuminators; there were a few exceptions, such as Amalric, king of Jerusalem (1163-1174), or Janus, king of Cyprus (1398-1432); however, their activities did not substantially alter the overall situation.

The most creative and original period in the cultural life of the Latin East came in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, although historians often prefer to emphasize the brilliant activity of the Cypriot court in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, which was by no means negligible. The genres of epic, lyric, and romance, which occupied central positions in contemporary western European vernacular tradition, were scarcely represented among the literary production of Outremer, although this tradition was familiar to the Franks. Most of the texts produced in Outremer and Cyprus belonged to “minor” or marginal genres: chronicles, legal handbooks, and pilgrims’ guides. Writers and their public favored local themes, relating to the history, legal customs, and devotional geography of their new lands, and some of these texts also met with success abroad.

Epic, Romance, and Lyric Poetry

The Old French crusade epics were written in northern France at the end of the twelfth century. They deal with the “heroic” period of the conquest of Syria and Palestine (c. 1098-1102) and might be considered as a sort of vernacular history of the crusades, glorifying the behavior and ethical values of the feudal aristocracy. It is possible that behind these surviving chansons de geste(epic poems) there existed lost poems or oral narratives from Outremer, but this is only a hypothesis, based on scanty evidence: the name of Richard lipelerin (Richard the Pilgrim), credited as the author of a first version of the Chanson d’Antioche, or the mention of Prince Raymond of Poitiers as patron of the anonymous cleric from Antioch who composed the Les Chétifs. Yet epic poetry undoubtedly circulated among the Franks in the Levant, as is proved, for example, by the fragments of a thirteenth-century manuscript of the poem Fierabras, preserved (probably as war booty) in the treasure room of the Great Mosque of Damascus.

Romance was also appreciated in Outremer and Cyprus: characters and adventures from the Arthurian world were well known in the aristocratic milieu, and were used at least twice (in the thirteenth century) in royal celebrations in Acre and Cyprus. The jurist and poet Philip of Novara, a supporter of the Ibelin family, composed a short poem of some 200 lines, modeled on the Old French Roman de Renart, and included it in his autobiographical book (the so-called Mémoires), with parodistic functions. This poetic composition, considered by some scholars as an autonomous branch of the tales of Renard, is in fact the only text belonging to the romance genre composed in the Latin East.

Many poets from France (both French- and Occitanspeaking areas) and Germany took part in crusades. They included Duke William IX of Aquitaine, Jaufre Rudel, Raim- baut de Vaqueiras, Conon de Béthune, Thibaud IV of Champagne, Hartmann von Aue, and Neidhart. Some composed their lyrics in Outremer, but many more did so in Europe, before or after their Eastern adventures. There were also poets (such as Marcabru or Rutebeuf) who wrote chansons de croisade (crusade songs), either inciting their audience to take the cross or complaining about the indolence of Western kings, without leaving their countries. These crusade songs were evidently not very popular in the Latin East, where it is possible to find examples of another kind of poetry, dealing with contemporary political and military events, such as the Latin poem Plange Syon et Iudea by Albert, bishop of Nazareth, a dirge on the fall of the city of Jerusalem to Saladin (1187), or the French poems inserted into his memoirs by Philip of Novara, in support of the Ibelin faction.

The only known chansonnier (song book) from the Latin East originated at the refined court of the Lusignan kings of Cyprus and dates to the fifteenth century. It is divided into five sections and contains a great number of compositions (liturgical poems, ballads, motets, rondeaux, virelais, and others) with their musical notation. This precious manuscript reflects the literary tastes of the Cypriot Frankish aristocracy in a moment of cultural and social decline: a group sympathetic to western European models and fashions, which throughout the fourteenth century was a good promoter and consumer of literature. One can also mention the relationship between the great Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio and Hugh IV of Cyprus (1324-1359), to whom he dedicated his Genealogia deorum gentilium, or the closer links between the French poet, crusade propagandist, and chancellor of Cyprus, Philippe de Mézières, and the Cypriot kings Peter I (1359-1369) and Peter II (1369-1372). Peter I enjoyed such a reputation in Europe that Guillaume de Machaut, one of the best French poets and musicians of his times, wrote a historical poem, La Prise d’Alexandrie,dealing with Peter’s crusade of 1365.


Annals and chronicles from Outremer and Cyprus are usually concerned mainly with local history, although they occasionally include some information about events in western Europe and Central Asia. Most of the twelfth-century texts were written in Latin by clerics, such as Fulcher of Chartres and William of Tyre, who were connected with kings or princes celebrated in their narratives. The chronicle of William of Tyre is surely the best piece of historiography from Outremer, and one of the most impressive in the entire medieval Latin tradition; it deals with the history of the Frankish states up to 1184, presumably ending shortly before the year of the author’s death. The text, in spite of its very high quality, had a rather restricted circulation in its original form (there are only ten extant manuscripts, copied in England and France between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries). However, it aroused a keen interest in the history of the Latin East. First, a Latin continuation for the years 1185-1194, written presumably in England, was appended to the text; some French continuations up to the year 1277 were added later on. Around 1220, the Latin chronicle was translated into French in northern France, not without a substantial revision to make it more suitable to laypeople. This new text (conventionally called Eracles) included some or all of the continuations and enjoyed an enormous success, both in western Europe and in Outremer: it was copied many times (as attested by over sixty manuscripts, often elegantly illustrated), translated and rewritten in other languages (including Latin itself), and used, often tacitly, by many other historians.

Vernacular history writing in Outremer began with Ambroise, a cleric who accompanied King Richard I of England during the Third Crusade (1189-1192) and praised his deeds in the Estoire de la guerre sainte. This historical poem is the first eyewitness crusade narrative written in French: it belongs to the Anglo-Norman tradition of dynastic verse historiography and can scarcely be considered as a product of cultural traditions of Outremer. The first vernacular historian of the Latin East was probably Ernoul, a knight or nobleman associated with the Ibelin family. At the beginning of the thirteenth century, he wrote a French chronicle (now lost) that was used by the compilers of the continuations of William of Tyre’s chronicle up to the year 1197. Another important historical text from the Latin East had a similar fate: the memoirs of Philip of Novara, partially included in a chronicle of Outremer and Cyprus, the Gestes des Chiprois. The author of this text was a secretary of the Order of the Temple in Acre. Shortly before the fall of the city to the Mamlûks (1291), he moved to Cyprus, where he compiled a historical narrative based on his own experience, on Philip of Novara’s memoirs, on the Eracles, and on original annalistic material from Outremer.

Many of the extant manuscripts copied in the scriptoria of Jerusalem, Antioch, and Acre embody historical texts of various kinds, from the Faits de Romains to the Eracles and French translations of the historical books of the Bible. It is perhaps possible to detect an attempt to justify the dominion of the Franks over the Holy Land, seen as a legacy from a legendary or historical past: from this point of view, the Franks were new Israelites, renewing the heroic feats of their symbolic ancestors by fighting against the infidels. Inventing local traditions is a common and appropriate response to the need to construct a new cultural identity; similarly, Templars and Hospitallers produced or, at least, diffused a host of legends supporting claims for an ancient origin of their orders (which were, in reality, created in the eleventh and twelfth centuries). Jurists in the thirteenth century used to refer to the lost Letres dou Sepulcre, a collection of the oldest laws of the country, supposedly preserved in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, but destroyed by Saladin in 1187. Probably such a collection never existed, and references to it served only to uphold the position of local feudal rights against French customary law.

Legal Texts

The aristocracy, the same social group to which the vernacular chronicles were mainly directed, sponsored the production of juridical texts, supporting their claims against royal power: these treatises, concerning the laws, customs, and legal procedures applied in the kingdom, are known as the Assizes of Jerusalem (Fr. Assises de Jérusalem). The monarchy concurred in the elaboration of this collection of laws, but only one of the surviving texts mirrors its perspectives: the Livre au Roi, written for King Aimery of Jerusalem at the beginning of the thirteenth century. The Frankish burgesses also had their own court of justice, and codified its decisions in the Livre de la Cour des Bourgeois, written in the 1240s by an anonymous author who worked in the judicial administration of Acre. Most of the other texts date from the middle years of the thirteenth century and were written by law practitioners (Philip of Novara, Ralph of Tiberias, Geoffrey Le Tor, John of Jaffa) who were either noblemen or who worked for noble families. The Livre des Assises compiled around 1265 by John of Jaffa was so highly esteemed that it was adopted in 1369 by the High Court of Cyprus as its official work of reference; in the 1530s, the Venetians as the new rulers of the island ordered its translation into Italian. Previously, another collection of laws had received the honor of translation: the Assizes of Antioch (Fr. Assises d’Antioche) survive only in an Armenian version written around 1265, ordered by Prince Smbad as groundwork for his code of Armeno-Cilician laws.

Pilgrimage, Travel Writing, and Recovery Treatises

Although it belonged to a tradition going back to the fourth century, pilgrimage writing acquired a new flavor during the period of the Frankish states in Outremer. Thanks to the political situation and to better travel conditions, travelers’ accounts increased in number; and this trend did not change after the complete Muslim recovery of the Holy Land (1291), when pilgrims had to modify their itineraries substantially. Most of the texts are similar in content: they are pilgrims’ guides, comprising lists of holy places and sanctuaries, listing prayers and indulgences and some practical information and advice. Now and then, there were more curious or learned pilgrims, who filled their texts with comments on contemporary social reality and natural landscapes, or with quotations from the Bible and the fathers of the church, converting them into treatises of devotional geography. Among these texts, it is worth mentioning the description of the Holy Land written in Latin (1128/1132) by Rorgo Fretellus, archdeacon of Antioch, and preserved in 115 manuscripts, copied in the Latin East and in Europe from the twelfth to the seventeenth centuries. Another important and popular Latin description (1280/1283) was written by the Dominican Burchard, who traveled extensively in the Near East and spent several years in the convent of Mount Zion in Jerusalem.

There were also vernacular adaptations of Latin guides, which usually circulated among pilgrims in rudimentary formats such as loose sheets of paper or unbound quires; they were not preserved in an independent form, but only copied when they were incorporated into longer texts. The first French descriptions of the Holy Land, taken from travelers’ accounts or imitating them, are to be found in the Eracles; in the course of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, these texts acquired some distinctive features, such as a wider range of interests or autobiographical character, and appeared as autonomous literary works.

Another literary genre connected with travel writing developed between East and West: the treatise on the recovery of the Holy Land. One of the best examples of this genre was commissioned in 1307 by Pope Clement V to be written by the Armenian prince Het‘um, who dictated it in French to Nicolas Falcon. It forms the fourth section of Het‘um’s Flor des estoires de la terre d’Orient, a very successful book dealing with the history and geography of the Near East. Another important treatise is the Latin Liber secretorum fidelium crucis, written by the Venetian merchant and diplomat Marino Sanudo Torsello, and presented to Pope John XXII in 1321. But in the second half of the fourteenth century, the prospects of a crusade for the recovery of Jerusalem were fading, and Europe was facing a new and more immediate threat in the form of the Ottoman Turks.

Translation Activity

A survey of the literary production of Outremer and Cyprus would not be complete without a reference to the activity of translators. As might be expected in a frontier society, there were translations from Arabic: in 1127 in Antioch Stephen of Pisa translated into Latin the Arabic medical treatise Kitāb al-malaki (Royal Book) by ‘Alī ibn al-‘Abbās al-Majūsī, with the title Regalis dispositio. Around 1220, a cleric named Philip, possibly of Italian origin, dedicated to the bishop of Tripoli his Secretum Secretorum, a translation of the Arabic encyclopedic treatise Kitāb Sirral-‘asrār (Book of Secret of Secrets). This was not the only Latin version of the text circulating in the Western world, but it was certainly the most popular, as is witnessed by some 350 extant manuscripts and countless vernacular translations and adaptations. There were also some translations from Latin into French: in 1271-1272 a Master Richard at Acre completed a French version of the Latin military treatise De re militari by the ancient author Vegetius; this translation was commissioned by Eleanor of Castile for her husband Lord Edward, the future king of England. Also at Acre (around 1282), John of Antioch translated the Rhetorica ad Herennium and Cicero’s De inventione for the Hospitaller knight William of St. Stephen, himself the author of a history of the order and of a compilation of its laws. John’s work, entitled Rettorique de Marc Tulles Cyceron, is the first French translation of Latin rhetorical texts, with the exception of a few sections in the Trésorby Brunetto Latini (1266-1267). In Cyprus, Peter of Paris translated (c. 1300) Boethius’s De consolatione philosophiae for another important Hospitaller, the commander Simon Le Rat. The two latter texts imply the existence in the Latin East of a lay readership for French books, which was interested in ancient learning but not sufficiently educated to acquire it directly from Latin texts.

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