How sustainable were the polities created by the crusaders in the Holy Land?

This essay achieved 60% in the first year of my undergraduate.

How sustainable were the polities created by the crusaders in the Holy Land?

It is almost exclusively argued that, in hindsight, the Crusader states were not at all sustainable. The basis of this argument is that there were many long term problems caused by the Western presence in Outremer, as well as the political situation in Europe throughout the period. This political instability in Europe translated to the Holy Land in the form of political dissension among the leaders of the various crusades. As well as this, there was also the ongoing tension between the Norman leaders (traditionally those of Antioch) and the Byzantine Empire[1] which culminated in the Norman defeat at Durazzo in 1107[2]. The other main arguments include the lack of support for Jerusalem[3], as well as lack of manpower[4], the debatable lack of strong leadership[5], and to a certain extent the arrogance of the Crusaders[6]. By contrast to this, the Muslims benefitted from strong leadership at various points throughout the period, perhaps most notably the likes of Il-Ghazi (1119-22), Zengi (1128-46), Nur-ad Din (1146-74) and Saladin (1174-93)[7].

There are however some significant counter examples to this, and it is argued by some that rather than being doomed to inevitably fail, the fall of the Crusader states was based on a few major turning points. These are widely considered the battle of the ‘Field of Blood’ in 1119, the fall of Edessa in 1144, the breaking of the alliance with Damascus in 1148[8] and finally and perhaps more obviously the Battle at Hattin[9] in 1187. Most historians[10] follow the argument that there were certain important points, but many simultaneously argue that the fall of the Crusader states was inevitable.

If they are looked for, the stages which led to the fall of Jerusalem have their roots in problems present since the creation of the states. Of these, and perhaps the most important were the divisions in many aspects of the Crusader polities. There were both divisions among the secular rulers as well as those inevitably between the secular rulers and the church. As well as these internal problems, there were also the potentially more damaging divisions between the Normans who made up a good proportion of the Crusaders and the Byzantine Empire which was the nearest Christian state. These divisions effectively crippled Crusader polities at one time or another, with those among the secular rulers primarily causing crises at any succession, although these gradually receded as the states became more established. The initial dispute[11] between the secular leaders and the church as to the nature of the emergent state[12] meant that even after it was clear that it was to be a secular state, there was constant tension between the two groups. These somewhat crippling internal disputes had lasting effects in that they caused a certain degree of introversion, in place of the required focus on external enemies[13].

However, the external tension between the Crusader polities and the Byzantine Empire, as well as the far more explicit manifestation of this with the Normans were arguably far more damaging, due to the fact that a strong and good relationship would have made the Crusader states far more sustainable. This is because the Byzantine Empire, as the closest Christian state would have been able to provide the supplies and manpower which the Crusader polities so sorely needed[14]. As well as these external political problems, the crusaders suffered from an almost chronic lack of support from their European parent states, as is shown by the fact that a Crusade was only arguably[15] launched in response to one of as many as nineteen appeals between 1099 and 1186[16]. The sustainability of the Crusader states was impossible due to these divisions, as it meant that there was not the influx of men, supplies and support necessary for their survival.

This is because there were conflicting objectives between the flow of support from Europe (under Papal direction) and the feudal, secular states in Outremer, the most explicit of these being the actions of the crusaders during the Second Crusade, with the breaking of the Damascene alliance in 1148[17]. The ‘native’ Franks were far more aware of how precarious their position was, and were more realistic about the need for local alliances, while the new crusaders from Europe were still filled with the religious fervour by virtue of various Papal Bulls[18] and therefore not as pragmatic. As well as this, the poor relations with the Byzantine Empire[19] meant that any aid from Europe would either have to pass through borderline-hostile territory before they even reached Muslim lands, or make the treacherous journey by sea. The lack of clear support, as well as the intervening distance between Europe and the Crusader states meant that their sustainability was questionable at best and their fall inevitable at worst. These divisions (both internal and external) were the reason for the lack of support for the polities in the Levant as well as the accompanying lack of manpower. They were also debatably the reason for the lack of strong leadership[20], as the constant political dissension meant local rulers felt they were unable to act decisively, and were arguably pressured into popular actions.

Concerning the practical geographical problems, as well as the distance between Europe and Outremer, the shape and locations of the various Crusader states in relation to one another meant that they were strategically vulnerable, mainly to isolation, because of the fact that they were quite narrow. There were other issues with many of the Frankish leadership, as many of the Latin occupants of the Levant were arguably motivated by greed rather than any religious fervour, at least past the end of the First Crusade. It is argued that at least a partial motive for the shift in objective of the Second Crusade was greed, as Damascus was a wealthy city, and offered an arguable trade opportunity further into the East. Other than this, and perhaps more obviously; the pursuit of the conquest of Egypt was mainly due to the riches provided by the trade and land along the Nile, while the strategic and tactical benefits were negligible by comparison to potential targets in Northern Syria. This meant that the strategic thinking required for the survival of the polities was perhaps overrode by more material incentives.

Coupled with the lack of support was arguably a certain degree of arrogance among the Franks following the resounding successes of the First Crusade. While this legacy was also a source of inspiration, it meant that the Franks had an inflated sense of their own military abilities, as is shown by various actions throughout the decline of the Crusader states, perhaps most notably at the ‘Field of Blood’ in 1119[21] and to a certain extent at Hattin in 1187[22], though there were other less famous instances, such as on the 1st May 1187[23]. This arrogance was borne of the fact that the victories of the First Crusade were at the time contributed to a combination of the religious fervour and the military power of the crusaders and not the fragility of the Muslim factions[24].

This arrogance or serious misconception meant that the emergence of strong Muslim leaders able to create a united foe along the borders of the Crusader states caused considerable pressure. The increasing regularity with which these emerged became synonymous with Frankish losses. These losses were what are now considered among the key turning points in the fall of the Crusader polities, with the ‘Field of Blood,’ the first major defeat for the Christians in 1119 at the hands of Il-Ghazi, followed by the fall of Edessa in 1144 to Zengi, and then perhaps more importantly the fall of Damascus to Nuraddin in 1154[25] and the defeat of the Christian army at Hattin in 1187 by Saladin. The periods of Muslim strength were characterised by these grievous losses for very little if any gain, and they became more continuous as the Muslim world reacted to the shock of the Crusades. The fall of the Crusader states must therefore be considered inevitable and their sustainability questionable, as it was to be expected that the Muslims would unify in the face of the Crusades.

There are however other arguments to consider; those that the fall of the Crusader polities were due only to a series of turning points. These arguments emphasise the gains made by the stronger rulers through the period, notably Baldwin III, who took Ascalon in 1153[26] and Amalric with his gains in Egypt in the 1160s[27]. As well as this prominence placed on the positives, the same arguments also stress the importance of the Frankish losses by contrast, emphasising just how grievous they were, by referencing Muslim sources[28] which were likely to be biased at least slightly. Most historians[29] however, while accepting that there were gains made, do not devote too much attention to them as positive gains. The main point raised concerning the conquests is that the focus in the south, particularly in 1153-4, allowed Nuraddin to consolidate his hold on northern Syria with the capture of Damascus. At the same time, it is argued that the major Christian losses acted simply as accelerants to the process of the fall of the Crusader polities.

The major points were important, but they simply accelerated the steady decline as the Muslims realised that the Crusades were a Holy War, and responded with their own lesser jihad[30]. As the Muslim forces gradually became more unified, it became clear that the Crusader states would eventually fall. The geography: the fact that any support would have to travel a great distance, as well as the fact that the novelty of crusading wore off to a certain extent[31], with appeals being answered infrequently at best, meant that the manpower and supplies available to the Latin East were always restricted. With the simultaneous increase in their opponents’ supplies, the Frankish position only grew more untenable as the period advanced.

Word Count: 1,995

[1]See  H.E. Mayer, The Crusades, pp.86-7

[2] T.F. Madden, A Concise History of the Crusades, p.44

[3] Which manifested as lack of a focused crusading effort, for example during the Second Crusade, see J. Richard, pp.156-8, or J. France, The Crusades and the Expansion of Catholic Christendom 1000-1714, pp.132-3

[4] See B. Hamilton, The Crusades, p.13

[5] T.F. Madden, A Concise History of the Crusades, pp.39-97

[6] Perhaps the legacy of the First Crusade.

[7] For a full description see B. Hamilton, The Crusades, pp.35-44, or J. Phillips, The Crusades 1095-1197, p.32, p.37, pp.93-5 and pp.123-36

[8] B. Hamilton, The Crusades, p.37

[9] Also the ‘Horns of Hattin’

[10] T.F. Madden, A Concise History of the Crusades, pp.39-97, B. Hamilton, The Crusades, pp.35-44,

[11] J. Richard, The Crusades c.1071-c.1291, pp.67-70

[12] E. Barker, The Crusades, p.26

[13] See J. Phillips, The Crusades 1095-1197, p. 27

[14] J. Phillips, The Crusades 1095-1197, p.27

[15] The term crusade is used loosely by some, such as T. F. Madden, A Concise History of the Crusades.

[16] J. Phillips, The Crusades 1095-1197, p.27

[17] B. Hamilton, The Crusades, pp.36-7 and J. Phillips, The Crusades 1095-1197, pp.74-6

[18] At the time of the Second Crusade: Quantum Praedecessores.

[19] E. Barker, The Crusades, pp.36-7

[20] There are arguable exceptions to this: King Fulk and Queen Melisende, see J. Phillips, Holy Warriors: A Modern History of the Crusades, pp.52-8

[21] For a description, see J. Phillips, The Crusades, 1095-1197, pp.32-3, or for an Arabic source see Ibn al-Qalanisi in C. Hillenbrand, The Crusades: Islamic Perspectives, p.81

[22] For an in-depth description, see J. Prawer, Crusader Institutions, pp.484-500.

[23] See J. France, The Crusades, p.141

[24] Shown outside Antioch in June 1098, see A. Maalouf, The Crusades through Arab Eyes, pp.33-4

[25]See  J. France, The Crusades, p.138

[26] See T.F. Madden, A Concise History of the Crusades, p.66

[27] J. Phillips, The Crusades 1095-1197, pp.95-6

[28] C. Hillenbrand, The Crusades, p.81, pp.112-4

[29] Including those above.

[30] For reference see C. Hillenbrand, The Crusades, pp.89-97

[31] See T. Asbridge, ‘Why Islam crushed the Crusaders’, History Magazine, 13 (2012), pp.52-3 for counter argument.


Asbridge, T., ‘Why Islam crushed the Crusaders’, History Magazine, 13 (2012), pp.52-3.

Barker, E., The Crusades (London, 1925).

Conder, C.R., The Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem 1099 to 1291 A.D. (London, 1973).

Emerson, A., ‘The French Kingdom of Jerusalem’, The North American Review, 207 (1918), pp.40-51.

France, J., The Crusades and the Expansion of Catholic Christendom 1000-1714 (Oxon and New York, 2005).

Hamilton, B., The Crusades (Stroud, 1998).

Hillenbrand, C., The Crusades: Islamic Perspectives (Edinburgh, 1999).

Jacoby, D., ‘The Kingdom of Jerusalem and the Collapse of Hohenstaufen Power in the Levant’, Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 40 (1986), pp.83-101.

Madden, T.F., A Concise History of the Crusades (Lanham and Oxford, 1999).

Mayer, H.E., The Crusades (Oxford and New York, 1990).

Phillips, J., Holy Warriors: A Modern History of the Crusades (London, 2009).

Phillips, J., The Crusades 1095-1197 (Great Britain, 2002).

Prawer, J., Crusader Institutions (Oxford and New York, 1980).

Richards, J., The Crusades, c.1071-c.1291 (Cambridge and New York, 1999).

Riley-Smith, J., The Oxford Illustrated History of the Crusades (Oxford and New York, 1995).



All the following feedback is rated on the following scale: Outstanding-Excellent-Good-Competent-Pass-Fail.

Breadth of Reading: Good

Critical approach to historiography: Good-Competent

Focus on question: Good

Organization of the material: Good

Depth of understanding and insight: Good

Use of examples: Good

Introduction and Conclusion: Good

Factual accuracy: Good

Comprehensiveness of coverage: Good

Fluent and correct English: Good-Competent

Accurate spelling/proof reading: Good

Sources cited correctly: Good-Competent

General Comments and Advice: A generally well thought out essay. Your introduction was good allowing the reader to appreciate what you were going to say. The rest of the essay was well structured with each point being well defined. I thought the ending was not as strong, perhaps being a little brief, but you never the less managed to come to a balanced conclusion.

Your breadth of reading was good but was let down a little by too few references to historiographical opinions. Your citations were generally ok, but perhaps there could have been a few more.

Overall a good start.