Post-classical history

Warfare: Outremer

Palestine and Syria were the scene of constant warfare from the inception of Frankish rule at the beginning of the twelfth century up to its final overthrow by the Mamlûks in 1291.

Western and Eastern Warfare

In the period of the crusades western European state structures were weak and depended on subsistence agriculture. Standing armies, except for the small personal followings gathered around kings and lords, could not be afforded. The rich equipped themselves and their retainers with horses, armor, and swords and lances. This military elite was well trained to fight on horse or foot. Some were nobles; others, simply bully-boys for whom a military career offered prospects. They were housed in and around fortified residences, castles, which they defended for their masters, whose rule they imposed upon the peasantry.

At the end of the eleventh century military capacity was vested in the aristocracy and their retainers. Any large army was a gathering of retinues of lords. This elite was accompanied to war by foot soldiers, humbler men prepared to take the risks of war, among whom were sergeants, who held petty lands of lords in return for military service. Infantry were mostly spearmen and archers, sometimes supplemented by mercenaries, who became increasingly popular in the twelfth century, and by crossbowmen. Mobility gave cavalry the initiative in war, but they were not necessarily the decisive arm. Climate, geography, and topography in western Europe often favored infantry. At the battle of Hastings (1066) solid ranks of English foot soldiers massed on a hill held off the Norman cavalry for a long time. Armies in Europe had almost no light horsemen. By the late twelfth century sergeants à cheval (mounted sergeants) were fairly common and were clearly less well equipped than knights, but they did not represent a different kind of cavalry and fought in much the same way. At the battle of Bouvines (1214) the Flemish knights scorned the French sergeants who charged them like knights. Europe lacks vast plains where ponies can be easily grazed, so the focus of horse raising was on stall-feeding larger animals.

Tactically, commanders knew that infantry and cavalry needed to be deployed in close-ordered units so that men could support one another in battle. But large armies were occasional bodies that were so expensive to maintain that they were dispersed as soon as possible; thus, they were relatively incoherent. This partly explains the reluctance of commanders to risk battle. Even sieges raised organizational problems. The need for hand-to-hand fighting favored the besieged, and protracted operations meant that besiegers needed equipment and regular supply. Therefore, the staple of war was ravaging to destroy the enemy’s economic base.

Cities, with flourishing money economies, dominated the Near and Middle East. The Great Saljûq sultanate and the Fātimid caliphate of Egypt were centralized, and their rulers depended on ministries (Arab. diwans) that collected and spent revenues centrally. The Sisayat-nama (Book of Government), by the Saljûq vizier Nizām al-Mulk, records much about the support of armies in Syria at the end of the eleventh century. Standing forces were larger than in the West but represented only the cores of armies that, as in Europe, were ad hoc gatherings. Saladin created an unusually strong regular core, but even he had difficulty keeping the remainder of his forces together. In 1250 the Circassian and Turkish mamlûks (slave soldiers) in Egypt slew his descendant Turān-Shāh,and set up the Mamlûk sultanate, which created a standing army. The Mamlûk regime was able to fight off the Mongol onslaught and in 1291 captured Acre (mod. ‘Akko, Israel), extinguishing the Frankish states of Outremer.

Infantry can be isolated and cut off from water in the arid lands of the Near and Middle East. However, these provided large areas of grazing for light horses. Light cavalry were easily available and useful, though heavily equipped cavalry became more important in the course of the twelfth century. Saladin’s ghulams (horsemen using the bow and close- quarter weapons) were never as heavily equipped as the best of the crusader knights, but they were not very different. Among the light cavalry of the East, Turkish horse-archers direct from the steppes were preeminent. At the battle of Dorylaion (1097) the anonymous knight who wrote the Gesta Francorum was impressed by the swirls of Turkish horsemen who surrounded the crusaders. Armenians, Syrians, and North Africans also provided light cavalry, while infantry were relegated to a subsidiary role. Tactically, Islamic commanders used mounted archers to shake the resolve of an enemy and thin their ranks, destroying isolated individuals or groups to open gaps in enemy formations. Victory against any resolute enemy depended on charging home, but the Muslim style of war, in contrast to that of the West, allowed for considerable maneuver in the approach to battle.

The Crusades to the East in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries

The First Crusade (1096-1099) was a collection of five major armies and many lesser forces run by a committee of leaders. Divided command dogged all crusades. On the Second Crusade (1147-1149) King Louis VII of France and King Conrad III of Germany did not meet until the German army had been defeated in Asia Minor. On the Third Crusade (1189-1192) King Richard I of England and King Philip II of France bickered, and after Philip’s departure Richard quarreled with other leaders. The republic of Venice commandeered the Fourth Crusade (1202-1204). On the Fifth Crusade (1217-1221) crusaders came and went so frequently that military decisions were made by the papal legate Pelagius of Albano. Only the crusade of Louis IX of France to the East (1248-1254) had a single leader. The problem was that crusader leaders were reluctant to accept subordination to any single person. This did not improve the coherence of crusading armies.

In the case of the First Crusade, good leadership, good luck, and the divisions of its enemies enabled it to survive long enough to become an efficient fighting force. The siege of Nicaea (mod. Iznik, Turkey) from 14 May to 19 June 1097 placed no special strains on the collective leadership, though the scale of the fortifications astounded the Westerners. An ill-judged Turkish relief effort on 16 May was repelled easily because the lightly armed enemy attacked in a confined space. The sheer number of the crusaders, about 50,000 60,000 strong, enabled them to brush aside the Turks of Asia Minor at Dorylaion on 1 July. During the siege of Antioch (mod. Antakya, Turkey), lasting from 21 October 1097 to 3 June 1098, they slowly extended their siege in an effort to strangle the city. With the aid of a fleet and of food from the Byzantines on Cyprus and the Armenians in the mountains, they managed to supply their army, though in early 1098 they almost starved to death. In battle they learned the value of solidity of formation, of guarding their flanks, and of establishing a rear guard against the Turkish tactics of encirclement. On 2 February 1098, under threat from a Muslim army from Aleppo, they chose as sole commander Bohe- mund of Taranto, who led a successful ambush of the enemy army.

Crusaders and Turks in battle during the First Crusade. (Bettmann/Corbis)

Crusaders and Turks in battle during the First Crusade. (Bettmann/Corbis)

After the capture of Antioch Bohemund claimed the city. This caused dissension among the leaders, and eventually a relatively small army of about 12,000 marched south and captured Jerusalem from the Fātimids of Egypt in July 1099. The Fātimids had been taken by surprise because they had initially regarded the crusaders as potential allies against the Saljûq Turks. They concentrated a great force at Ascalon (mod. Tel Ashqelon, Israel) in August 1099: the crusaders marched toward them, adopting a formation in which each squadron of cavalry was protected by footmen. This complex formation was only possible because they had become a disciplined force, and this contributed to their triumph in the battle.

No later crusade, except that of Louis IX of France, stayed together long enough to achieve this kind of coherence. On the Second Crusade Louis VII’s vanguard abandoned the main force, leaving it open to Turkish attack in the mountains of southern Anatolia, while the crusading fleet attacked the city of Lisbon in the Iberian Peninsula, delaying its arrival in the Holy Land. Crusades to the eastern Mediterranean remained wedded to Western methods of war throughout their relatively short lives.

The Strategic Situation of the Franks of Outremer

Because there was no “land bridge” to Europe, the condition of survival for the Frankish settlers in Outremer was the naval supremacy of the Italian cities. Their fleets helped supply the First Crusade. Egypt, the only Islamic naval power in the Mediterranean, offered some resistance, but this weakened as Egypt suffered factional struggles in the twelfth century. The Italian cities received privileged quarters in the Frankish cities to serve as bases for trade. This stimulated their maritime power and helped sustain their naval supremacy, which was enhanced when Richard I of England conquered Cyprus in 1191. The only serious Muslim challenge before the rise of the Ottoman Turks was mounted unsuccessfully by Saladin. This acquiescence in Western naval supremacy was not due to technical factors, because the Islamic world enjoyed a flourishing trade with the Far East. Perhaps this promoted a lack of interest in trade with Europe. Moreover, the Europeans interfered very little with the Islamic trade routes across the southern Mediterranean. Above all, Islamic forces defeated the Franks on land, negating the need to revive naval power.

The most important military problem of the Franks was that they were few in number. By the mid-twelfth century the kingdom of Jerusalem contained about 120,000 Westerners [Prawer, Crusader Institutions, pp. 102-104, 380-381], and perhaps the same number lived in the other Frankish principalities of Outremer. It has been suggested that castles were an adaptation to this circumstance and that they copied the art of stone fortification from Byzantium and the Islamic states. In fact castles were the consequence of the seigneurial structure of Frankish society, and stone was used because numerous ruins provided supplies of readily available building materials. Most were not especially formidable. Fortified cities anchored the Frankish states just as they anchored the Islamic states. However, the growing power of the Islamic states stimulated the Franks to produce the first concentric castle: Belvoir, overlooking the Jordan Valley, was built in a single campaign in 1168-1170. There is little doubt that Jacob’s Ford, under construction between October 1178 and March 1179, would have been built in the same style had Sal- adin not overwhelmed it before completion. This represented a formidable adaptation of castle design to the circumstances of war in the East.

Attack on the city of Tyre. From the History of Alexander the Great, fifteenth century. MS Paris, Musée du Petit Palais, Dutuit 456, fo. 58 v. (Réunion des Musées Nationaux/Art Resource)

Attack on the city of Tyre. From the History of Alexander the Great, fifteenth century. MS Paris, Musée du Petit Palais, Dutuit 456, fo. 58 v. (Réunion des Musées Nationaux/Art Resource)

Siege warfare was vital to the Franks in the twelfth century because they needed to capture the well-fortified Levantine ports. Siege warfare demanded machinery, but the Westerners enjoyed no technical advantages over the Islamic world and, indeed, never mastered the use of oil-based fire projectors, collectively called Greek fire. What is striking about crusader sieges is their persistence and organization. The Franks of the kingdom of Jerusalem prepared carefully, with a Venetian alliance, for the attack on Tyre (mod. Soûr, Lebanon) in 1124. Once the siege had begun, the Frankish army had to dig fortifications against a relief force as well as create a strong camp from which machines and attacks could be launched against the city. A similarly massive preparation brought the long siege of Ascalon (January- August 1153) to a successful conclusion.

Frankish Tactics

The key tactical adaptations of the Franks to the conditions of war in the East were readiness for battle and the employment of the massed cavalry charge as a battle-winning tactic. The Franks were a minority whose existence depended on a psychological supremacy. The Arab writer Usāma ibn Munqidh refers to their caution, but overall their hallmark was aggression. In 1119 Prince Roger of Antioch and his army were trapped when the larger army of the Artûqid emir īlghāzi infiltrated the mountains and passes around the plain in which he had encamped on his way to relieve the siege of Atharib, but Roger chose the option of attack. In 1149 Raymond, prince of Antioch, challenged the power of Nûr al-Dīn, only to go down to total defeat at Fons Muratus. At the springs of Cresson on 1 May 1187 about 140 Templars and Hospitallers attacked 7,000 of their enemies. These were defeats, but King Baldwin IV of Jerusalem took the enormous risk of confronting Saladin in 1177 and won at Mont Gisard.

The Franks were constantly at war and so gained experience in fighting together. As a result the armies of Outremer were more disciplined and coherent than those of the West. This meant that the Franks were ready for battle. In the face of a mobile enemy their cohesiveness enabled them to employ their magnificent warhorses in what Muslim sources call their “famous charge.” This sudden, disciplined onslaught had to be timed precisely if it was to be successful, as at Marj al-Suffar on 25 January 1126. In Europe cavalry was not disciplined enough to risk a mass charge, a tactic that only evolved there in the thirteenth century. Another indication of the Franks’ discipline was the fighting march. Frankish forces in certain circumstances refused to confront their enemies when they met them in the field but, instead, formed into columns of march that fought off the enemy in a kind of mobile siege. This could only have been achieved by disciplined and coherent forces.

Frankish Armies

Another remarkable military development was the establishment of military orders that provided regular forces to support the Frankish states. The Order of the Temple was originally founded to protect pilgrims on the dangerous roads of Palestine, but it quickly developed into a small army with enormous resources in the West, and the Order of the Hospital followed a rather similar evolution from its original purpose of caring for poor pilgrims. Each order could probably field about 300 knight brethren, but their wealth enabled them to hire mercenaries and foot soldiers in addition. They formed the nucleus of a standing army, and the Rule of the Templars lays down careful rules for the conduct of their forces in almost all circumstances, in much the same way as does a modern military manual. The discipline of the orders should not be exaggerated, but by the standards of the age it was remarkable.

The Franks were few, but the army of the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem, which was defeated at Hattin on 3-4 July 1187, contained about 1,300 knights and 12,000-15,000 others. By comparison, France and the German Empire mustered only about 15,000 between them at Bouvines in 1214. How was such a great force raised? At its core were 1,200-1,300 knights raised by the nobility and the military orders. Pilgrims could be pressed into service in an emergency: The chronicler William of Tyre says that pilgrims who fought at the siege of Ascalon in 1153 were paid. We know that Western knights sometimes came to the East to do service with the king or with one of the religious orders. In addition, mercenaries were employed. In 1183 a special tax was levied throughout the kingdom in order to raise mounted men and infantry. King Guy used all possible resources to hire paid men for the army of 1187.

Among the 12,000-15,000 “others” in the Frankish army at Hattin were many horsemen described as turcopoles (light horsemen), who were perhaps more numerous than the knights. The identity of the turcopoles has raised much controversy. Early chroniclers say that they were the children of Christian-Turkish marriages, but this applies to Byzantine turcopoles. In Outremer the turcopoles were light cavalry, used as mounted archers, in reconnaissance, and to carry messages. Richard I of England used them to ambush a supply caravan. The use of such an arm represents a substantial modification of Frankish fighting methods, though the turcopoles never seem to have been numerous enough to play the major role of the light cavalry in Muslim armies in battle. This still leaves the question of where they and large numbers of infantry came from. Good evidence suggests that the Franks could raise 5,000 Frankish sergeants, but this may be an underestimate. It has recently been shown that Frankish settlement in the Latin kingdom was intimately associated with Eastern Christian settlement, and this must lead us to suspect that in 1187 this population provided infantry, perhaps with the stimulus of the money that we know King Guy was liberally paying out. This might explain where the huge numbers of turcopoles and foot soldiers came from. Moreover, from early times the Franks had employed Armenians, Maronites, and Syrians as soldiers. Such native Christians, long used to contact with the Franks and attracted into military service by pay, probably made up a sizable proportion of Frankish forces and may well have been a very large element in the army of 1187. The readiness of the Franks to enlist such people represented a considerable adaptation of European military methods.

The kingdom of Jerusalem was destroyed at the battle of Hattin. We have relatively little reliable information about why King Guy gave battle or about the course of events because our sources are poisoned by partiality, obscurity, and ignorance. This confusion should not be allowed to obscure the fact that Guy’s army held together through two days of constant attack by an enemy vastly superior in numbers and that even at the last it kept its baggage train and attempted to erect a fortress-camp. But Guy failed to realize just how heavily outnumbered he was; Saladin had enough troops, perhaps as many as 30,000 in all, to surround and harass the Franks, while standing his main force off, protecting them from a charge. Considering that much of the Christian army had been hastily recruited, it was no small achievement that the Franks fought on for two days, and this underlines the skillful adaptation to Eastern conditions that the Franks had achieved in their years in the Holy Land.

Frankish knights before a fortified city. From a twelfth-century fresco in the former Templar church in Cressac, France. (The Art Archive/Templar Chapel Cressac/Dagli Orti)

Frankish knights before a fortified city. From a twelfth-century fresco in the former Templar church in Cressac, France. (The Art Archive/Templar Chapel Cressac/Dagli Orti)

The kingdom of Jerusalem continued to exist until 1291, but after the failure of the Third Crusade it was always heavily dependent upon outside aid. The military culture of this period was dominated by the need to defend a few well- fortified cities, notably Acre, Tripoli (mod. Trâblous, Lebanon), and Antioch, and some remarkable castles, notably Margat (mod. Marqab, Syria), Krakdes Chevaliers (mod. Hisn al-Akrād, Syria), Château Pèlerin (mod. ‘Atlit, Israel), and Arsuf. They could no longer challenge the Muslim powers in open battle and so sought to extend their influence by raids, consolidated by new fortresses and agree ments with neighbors. At La Forbie in 1244 the forces of the kingdom were decimated, but on this occasion they were really only ancillaries to a quarrel between Muslim powers.


The Franks of Outremer in the twelfth century substantially adapted their style of warfare to regional conditions. Outnumbered, they developed an aggressive style of war that depended on a readiness to face their Muslim enemies in battle to a degree unknown in the West. They depended on a high degree of cohesion and discipline, and this enabled them to introduce their great tactical innovation: the mass cavalry charge. They raised infantry and cavalry through landed obligation and by payment, as in the contemporary West. The military orders provided regular troops to supplement the secular armies. The skills of Eastern Christians supplemented their forces. In siege warfare their persistence, discipline, and organization gave them success. Castles were a consequence of their social and political structure, but the rise of powerful enemies led them to develop a radically new design, the concentric castle. In an age when technological innovation was very limited, these were major adaptations of Western fighting methods to the conditions of warfare in the Near and Middle East.

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