Outremer is a name used in medieval sources and in modern scholarship as a collective term for the four Frankish states established in Syria and Palestine by the First Crusade (1096-1099): the county of Edessa (1097-1150), the principality of Antioch (1098-1287), the kingdom of Jerusalem (1099-1291), and the county of Tripoli (1102-1289). The kingdom of Jerusalem extended over the southern parts of Outremer, in the area historically known as Palestine (mod. Israel, West Bank, Gaza Strip, and adjacent regions); the other three states were situated in the north, in areas known historically as Syria and Upper Mesopotamia (roughly mod. Syria, southeastern Turkey, and Lebanon). During its relatively short existence, the county of Edessa extended much further to the east than the other Frankish states, well beyond the river Euphrates.
The word Outremer derives from the Old French expression Ou(l)tremer, meaning literally “[the land] beyond the sea,” that is, the lands on the far side of the Mediterranean Sea, seen from the perspective of Western Christians. Similar formulations are found in other languages: Spanish Ultramar, Italian Oltremare, and Middle High German daz lant über mer. An alternative name for the four Frankish principalities in modern historical writing is the “Crusader States.” Although common, this term is less accurate, since after around 1130 extremely few of their Frankish inhabitants were actually crusaders, in the sense of people who had taken a vow to go on crusade. In the Middle Ages the Frankish states were also often collectively known as Syria (Lat. Syria, Fr. Syrie).
The geography of Outremer and its neighboring lands to the east can be conceived in broad terms as a series of elongated bands or zones running north-south; viewed from west to east, these can be visualized as having distinct physical characteristics. Adjoining the Mediterranean Sea is a relatively fertile coastal plain, narrower in the north and central areas, but quite broad in the south. This plain rises, quite dramatically in the north but more gradually in the south, to a spine. In the north and center, the spine consists of high mountains: the Amanus, Nusairi, and Lebanon ranges. These are fairly impenetrable, and they impeded communications, but they are broken by larger gaps in places, notably the Syrian Gates and the lower reaches of the river Orontes (in the principality of Antioch) and the Buqaia (in the county of Tripoli). In the south the spine is formed by the highlands of Judaea, Samaria, and Galilee, with the settlements of Jerusalem, Nablus, and Nazareth. The spine descends to a long valley formed by a series of rivers and lakes: the Orontes and Litani in the north and center, and the river Jordan, together with Lake Tiberias and the Dead Sea, in the south. To the east of the valley, the country rises again to a wide, mostly fertile zone, which is higher in the center (the Anti- Lebanon range and Mount Hermon). Its northern section, including the cities of Aleppo and Damascus, is very fertile, but its fertility decreases to the south of the area known as the Hauran. The Franks were able to penetrate and partially control this zone in the twelfth century, but they were never able to capture the major Muslim cities of Aleppo, Hama, Homs, or Damascus. The conquests of Saladin in the late twelfth century and of the Mamlûk sultanate in the thirteenth successively pushed Frankish-held territory further back toward the west, until it was reduced to a series of unconnected coastal strips by the 1280s.
Water was relatively scarce in the time of the crusades, as in modern times, and irrigation was common in agriculture. The relative availability of water supplies not only restricted communications, but was also a significant factor in determining where armies could go. The main staple crop was wheat, and other important products were olives, citrus fruits, and sugarcane. Muslim prohibitions on wine had restricted the cultivation of vines; wine production gained new impetus under the Franks, who required it for everyday drinking as well as liturgical purposes. Because of water shortages, much of the land was not cultivated, but given over to pasture, mainly grazed by sheep and goats. There was little suitable pasture for cattle or horses, and it was necessary to import horses for military purposes.
The Frankish States of Outremer, c. 1130
Frankish-held territory comprised several important cities, particularly on the coast. Acre (mod. ‘Akko, Israel), and to a lesser extent Tyre (mod. Soûr, Lebanon), Tripoli (mod. Trâblous,Lebanon), and Beirut, connected with major trade routes from the east and served as entrepôts for luxury products such as spices and textiles, as well as local and regional products. These cities also had important industries, as did Antioch (mod. Antakya, Turkey) and other major towns. The coastal cities attracted settlers from the Italian republics of Genoa, Venice, and Pisa, who received legal and financial privileges and in some places were able to establish their own autonomous quarters. The inland city of Jerusalem, by contrast, had no large-scale industry or trade; its main economic role was to service the royal and ecclesiastical administrations and cater to the important pilgrim traffic from the West.
The Franks constituted a privileged minority in all four states of Outremer, the only ethnic group in possession of all legal rights. The majority of the Frankish population lived in urban centers or as garrisons and support personnel in castles. During the initial phase of conquest, the Muslim and Jewish urban populations were largely either massacred or expelled, although the native Christians were allowed to remain and Jews were later allowed to return. The city of Jerusalem remained (at least in theory) barred to non-Christians. Most rural settlement was in villages, known in Latin as casalia (sing. casale), while there were many deserted or seasonally occupied settlements (Lat. gastinae, sing. gastina).
The native rural population consisted largely of Muslims (known to the Franks as Saracens) and native Christians of various denominations. There were also smaller rural minorities of Jews and Samaritans in Galilee, and Druzes in the mountains of Lebanon. In some cases Franks settled in newly founded villages, such as Magna Mahomeria (mod. al-Bira, West Bank) near Jericho. In some cases these new settlements were exclusively meant for Franks, but other settlements had mixed communities of Franks and native Christians.
Most of the native population, whether Christian, Muslim, or Jewish, used Arabic as their everyday language, although there were also significant numbers who used Syriac, Armenian (notably in the county of Edessa), and Greek (notably in the cities of Antioch and Laodikeia in Syria). The Frankish settlers and their descendants spoke French and wrote Latin, while Italian dialects were also found in the coastal cities where Venetians, Genoese, and Pisans resided, and many other languages were heard from the numerous pilgrims who visited the Holy Land under Frankish rule. However, few Franks seem to have learned Arabic, and such knowledge was often remarked on (and by implication, regarded as unusual) in both Western and Arabic sources.