Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

Understanding Ourselves by Understanding the Past.


My biographical novel of Balian d'Ibelin in three parts is complete, but the saga continues. Follow me to Cyprus, where Lusignans and Ibelins struggle to put down a rebellion and establish a durable state. Watch for excerpts and updates here.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Life and Lifestyle in the Crusader States: Cuisine


Since Ancient Greece, food has been more than just a means of fueling the human body; it has been recognized as a pleasure. All cultures surround at least some meals with ritual and custom, particularly meals shared with strangers or guests. Most regions have distinct cooking traditions, and everywhere cooks are valued. Medieval Europe was no exception, and most readers will have heard of extravagant medieval feasts featuring game such as beavers and swans or spectacles such as pies full of live birds. 

We can assume that people in the crusader states were no exception to this general rule. Furthermore, residents in the crusader states benefited from being in one of the most fertile regions of the world ― no, the Kingdom of Jerusalem was not located in the North African desert used to film The Kingdom of Heaven, but rather occupied the biblical “land of milk and honey.” 


Furthermore, like cosmopolitan cities today, the crusader states sat at a cross-roads of civilizations, which ensured a variety of culinary traditions lived side-by-side ― and very likely influenced one another. On the one hand the inhabitants of "Outremer" inherited the cooking habits of earlier Mediterranean civilizations including invaders from the Arabian peninsula and the Near Eastern steppes, while on the other hand they also enjoyed the customs brought out to the Holy Land by Latin settlers from Northern and Western Europe. That said, I’m going to admit that we don’t have a lot of evidence for exactly what this mix of cuisines actually looked like ― much less how it tasted!



We do, however, have considerable information about what ingredients were available to the residents of Outremer, and this provides a basis for speculating and imagining at least some features of crusader cuisine. Before speculating on the content of crusader cooking, however, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the crusader states are credited by some historians (namely Adrian Boas) with an important culinary innovation: fast food.

The large number of pilgrims flooding the Holy City produced a plethora of cheap inns and hostels, places where pilgrims could bed down for the night. However, cheap places to sleep, then as now, did not offer meals, and so pilgrims had to eat elsewhere. A general shortage of firewood meant that not only was bread baked centrally at large ovens (usually co-located with flour mills), but also that “cook shops” producing large quantities of food over a single oven was more practical than everyone cooking for themselves.  The result was the medieval equivalent of modern “food courts” ― streets or markets on which a variety of shops offered pre-prepared food. The results were probably not all that different from today; the area in Jerusalem on which these cook-shops concentrated was known as the market (or street) of Bad Cooking ― the Malquisinat.


And now to the ingredients:


The staple of the medieval diet was bread derived from grain, and this was true in the Holy Land as well as in the West. Milling was a prerogative of the feudal elite, and bakeries were generally co-located with mills. In rural areas this was usually near the manor, and in urban areas the bakeries were well distributed around the city for convenience, something well recorded archeologically. The primary grains popular in the Holy Land in the crusader period were wheat and barley, but millet and rice are also recorded, whereby rice was not converted into bread but instead eaten by the native population that retained Arab/Turkish eating habits that included the consumption of rice.


Animal products were the second pillar of the medieval diet, highly valued, and correspondingly exploited fully from the meat to innards. Of the large domesticated animals, sheep and goats were the most common type of livestock in the Holy Land, and the Hospitallers recommended lamb and kid for patients in their hospitals. Jerusalem, however, also had a cattle market and a pig market. The latter is particularly noteworthy given the fact that both Jews and Muslims view pigs as unclean. However, a large (Orthodox) Christian population continued to live in the Holy Land throughout the Muslim occupation of Jerusalem, so pigs would have been bred and did not need to be imported. There is also evidence of camels in the crusader states, and camel meat is considered a delicacy in much of the Middle East. However, it is questionable that the Franks adopted the habit of eating camel meat. The camels of Outremer were more probably used primarily as beasts of burden not as food.

Of the smaller animals, poultry and fish certainly belonged to the crusader diet. Chicken coups and indeed whole villages specialized in poultry production have been identified by archaeologists. Fish, on the other hand, was vitally important becaus meat was prohibited on “fasting days” such as throughout Advent, Lent and on Fridays. In the second century of the crusader states, the population of Outremer was clustered along the coastline, and fish from the Mediterranean would have been plentiful and fresh. This would have represented a great enrichment of crusade cuisine unknown in most of continental Europe, where it was impossible (using medieval means of preservation) to get fish from the catch to the table in a form resembling “fresh” except in port towns.  The Mediterranean yields some of the most delicious fish, including squid and octopus, and shellfish and crab remains have been found in crusader archaeological digs.

Game, according to Hazard*, was available in the first century of crusader rule in the Kingdom of Jerusalem. He lists gazelles, boars, roedeer, hares, partridge and quail.  However, after the territorial losses following the defeat at Hattin, population density would not have allowed for large tracts of fertile land in which game could thrive, so game probably disappeared from the tables of the elite in the states on the mainland. Cyprus, on the other hand, was not densely populated, and allegedly still had some exotic wildlife (including lions) that must have tempted medieval hunters.

Animal products such as eggs, milk, butter, yogurt, and cheese were, on the other, consumed in the Holy Land in the crusader period, the latter being more important than the former. While milk and butter is hard to preserve fresh, cheese is a product with a comparatively long shelf-life. Furthermore, cheese can be produced from cattle, sheep, goat and camel milk. A comparatively wide variety of cheese would, therefore, most probably have been available. Yogurt, being a product used heavily in the Middle Eastern diet, would likewise probably have been known to crusaders, though probably less readily embraced.


Vegetable varieties in contrast would have seemed limited by modern standards. Legumes were the primary vegetables of the Middle Ages, and in the crusader states the most important vegetables were beans including broad beans, various lentils, cabbage, onions, peas and chickpeas. However, fresh cucumbers and melons were both native to the Levant and probably formed part of the crusader diet.


Fruits were also a key component of crusader cuisine. The residents of Outremer had ready access to fruits such as oranges and lemons that were considered outrageous luxuries in the West, yet grew in abundance in the Levant. Along with typical and familiar fruits from the West such as apples, pears, plums and cherries, Outremer cultivated orchards of pomegranates (particularly around Ibelin and Jaffa). Figs, dates, carobs and bananas were also native to the region and continued in cultivation during the crusader period. But arguably most important of all were grapes, which ― of course ― were eaten fresh and dried (raisins and currants) and pressed/fermented as wine.


Other important trees that yielded important dietary supplements were almonds, pistachios and, most important of all, olives. Olive oil is and was fundamental to Middle Eastern cuisine. It is the primary source of cooking oil, used both as a means of cooking and a supplement for consistency and taste.

The most famous olive trees in the Holy Land: the Mount of Olives outside of Jerusalem
And then there are the “additives” that make such a difference to the taste of food: honey, sugar, herbs and spices ― all ingredients found readily in the crusader states. Indeed, refined sugar was one of the main exports of the crusader states, which had many sugar cane plantations in the Jordan Valley, along the coast and later on Cyprus. Honey is also listed as one of the major products of Cyprus during the crusader period. A variety of herbs such as rosemary, thyme, and oregano grow in abundance, as well as mustard seed and garlic. More significant is that many of the spices coveted by the West and only available at very high prices in Europe passed through the ports of Outremer. The coastal cities and Jerusalem had spice markets in which these exotic, high-value products were available in quantities and at prices unimaginable in the West. Thus crusader cuisine would have been enriched by the use of cinnamon, cumin, cardamon, cloves, ginger, lavender, licorice, nutmeg, sesame, saffron, and pepper among others.


Given the materials the cooks of Outremer had to work with and the inspiration they could draw from their Greek, Arab and Turkish neighbors, I think we can assume that ― despite the presence of some mediocre fast-food joints in the Market of Bad Cooking ― the chefs and housewives throughout the crusader states could produce some truly wonderful cuisine.


* Hazard, Harry W. ed, A History of the Crusades IV: The Art and Architecture of the Crusader States.

See also: Andrian J. Boas, Domestic Settings: Sources on Domestic Architecture and Day-to-Day Activities in the Crusader States, Brill, 2010.


Daily life, including cooking and food, is depicted as accurately as possible in my novels set in Outremer:



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Sunday, May 21, 2017

Life and Lifestyle in the Crusader States: Clothes and Fashion




The perishable nature of clothing inhibits our ability to know exactly or in great detail how the residents of Outremer dressed.  We have to rely on the textile and garment fragments that have been found, contemporary artistic depictions and literary descriptions. Of these sources, depictions and descriptions both suggest that the fashion in crusader states was set in Paris more than Damascus, but this does not mean that modifications were not made to accommodate the weather and other conditions in the Holy Land. 


Least impacted by circumstances and so least unique were the armor and arms of the military elite.  The armor and weapons of Western knights had proved superior to the protective armor and weapons of the Saracens from the time of the First Crusade. That fundamental advantage continued throughout the period of Latin rule in the eastern Mediterranean. This is not to say that there was no development. On the contrary, arms and armor underwent dramatic changes in the two hundred years from 1099 to 1291, and again before the fall of Cyprus to Venice in 1473.  The evolution of arms and armor, however, was common to the entire West, with local variation to be sure, but any major innovation that provided significant advantages was rapidly adopted by a ruling elite that was remarkably mobile given the means of transportation. 


There was, however, one innovation which is widely attributed to crusading, and this was the evolution of the “surcoat” a cloth garment worn over armor.  The argument for attributing the emergence of the surcoat in the 12th century is that fighting in the intense sun of the Middle East would have made chainmail dangerously hot; by covering it with a thin, loose and flowing cloth, however, the chainmail could be kept comparatively cool. With the surcoat came the opportunity to wear colors and so also to wear distinguishing devices or “arms” as well. Hence the evolution of heraldry goes hand-in-hand with the emergence of the surcoat as an integral part of a knight’s battle dress.

  

Off the battlefield, the men of Outremer may have been tempted to adapt some of the clothing customs of native inhabitants.  It seems logical (at least to us) that at least during the hot summer months, men at leisure might have preferred loose flowing robes to hose, padded garments such as gambesons, much less fur-lined cloaks and hoods. There is, however, little to no evidence to support this. The depictions of barons and knights in manuscripts, sculpture or seals consistently show men of the military elite in military regalia. Kings are often depicted in voluminous robes, but these are identical to the robes of kings from the West. This has led some scholars to suggest that it was a matter of class pride not to adapt the fashions of the natives. Such an interpretation, however, is more consistent with earlier assumptions about “colonial” attitudes than recent evidence of inter-marriage and close cooperation with native Christian elites. In short, we do not know how the men of Outremer dressed “off-duty” and in private settings. 


We know even less about what the women in the crusader states wore.  They are depicted less frequently in art, and if so almost always in conventional Western garb. We know for certain that they did not adopt Muslim customs of going about completely veiled. The evidence for this comes from Muslim sources that both decry the lack of “modesty” displayed by crusader women―and admire the allure of women so exposed to the eyes of strange males.  That said, I also suspect that women will have found some means of protecting their skin from the ravages of the Middle Eastern sun, and this may have included veils worn over their faces while out of doors. Or it may have entailed wide-brimmed hats that cast a shadow.  Yet both ideas are pure speculation.


Furthermore, although the style of clothing may not have differed significantly from what was the latest fashion in Paris, Cologne, Pisa and Rome, the materials used could have made a significant difference to the effect of the clothes. The same surcoat or gown will fall, fold, billow and sway differently if made of heavy woolen or stiff linen compared to cotton gauze or silk. Many of the fabrics of Outremer were sheer, translucent or semi-transparent. Depending on how such fabrics are employed, they could have created enticingly provocative (or in the eye of clerics and conservatives vulgar and immodest) garments without ever deviating from the fashions wore in London or Paris. Likewise, a gown that is simple in cut and form can be transformed by silk brocade or a weft of gold into something stunning, luxurious and so (depending on your ideology) something self-indulgent and extravagant.

Isabella of Jerusalem is shown here wearing "cloth of gold."

Archaeologists have uncovered thousands of fabric fragments dating to the crusader era. While it is impossible to know if these were locally produced or imported, used by natives or the Latin elites, they do demonstrate the variety of textiles available. They included silk, cotton, linen, felt, wool, and cloth woven from goat hair. They also include a large number of hybrid fabrics composed of a warp of one kind of yarn and weft of another, such as silk and wool, linen or cotton.


We also know for a fact that some of the finest cloth known to the medieval world originated in the Near East. Egyptian cotton and linen, both renowned for their quality, were exported through the ports of the Levant as was silk from Damascus. Words familiar to us as types of cloth such as muslin, gauze, and damask derive their names from the cities that first produced them in export quantities, namely Mosul, Gaza and Damascus. Other fabrics no longer in use, such as siqlatin (silk woven with gold), were also known to have been traded through the ports of the crusader states and so were certainly in use there.

Nor did these textiles just pass through the ports of Outremer. There is documentary and archaeological evidence that textiles were produced in the crusader states. There were, for example, some 4,000 silk weavers in the County of Tripoli.  Tyre was famous for its white silk. Beirut exported both silk and cotton fabrics, while cotton was grown around Acre, Tiberias and Ramla.  


Almost as important as the material from which clothes were made are the dyes used to color it.  Here again, the crusader states sat near the source of many materials coveted for dying. Saffron, turmeric, and indigo ― not to mention the muscles found only off Tyre and the Peloponnese needed for a rich purple dye ― were all more readily available and cheaper in the crusader states than in Western Europe. This makes it probable that they were used more widely and more generously used, producing much brighter colors than was common in the west. 


And then comes the decoration. Weaving with different color threads, block printing and embroidery were all means of creating patterns and prints on the cloth fragments from this period.  Silk brocade and stitching with spun gold were particularly expensive and coveted forms of decoration for clothing that are known to have been exported, if not produced, in the crusader states.

Byzantine fashions influenced the crusaders more than Arab fashion. Note the elaborate decoration and the silk brocade used for the gown itself.

It was probably the combination of fine cloth and the use of vivid colors in decoration that made the clothing of Latin elites in Outremer seem exotic to visitors from the West. It was often commented upon by crusaders that the lords of Outremer were very rich and luxury loving. Some of that reputation came from a proclivity for bathing, and the use of sweet scents and perfume, but some was undoubtedly the apparent extravagance of dress that came from being able to afford for everyday materials that in the West were saved only for special occasions.




Daily life, including clothes and fashion, is depicted as accurately as possible in my novels set in Outremer:


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Sunday, May 14, 2017

Life and Lifestyle in the Crusader Kingdoms: Domestic Architecture


The way we build our homes both reflects and shapes our lives. Thus the lay-out of homes reveals a great deal about the society in which they were built. Was collective living or privacy preferred? Was light or security more important? Was luxury or convenience given precedence?
As a novelist, it is impossible to evoke a bygone age or to depict a period effectively without knowing how the homes of characters were built and how they functioned.


The Bishop of Oldenburg, traveling to the Kingdom of Jerusalem in 1212, was stunned by the luxury of the residences of the elite. According to Sir Steven Runciman in his "Families of Outremer," Oldenburg was particularly impressed by the Ibelin palace in Beirut: 
Its windows opened some on the sea, some on to delicious gardens. Its walls were paneled with plaques of poly-chrome marble; the vaulted ceiling [of the salon] was painted to resemble the sky with its stars; in the center of the [salon] was a fountain, and round it mosaics depicting the waves of the sea edged with sands so lifelike that [the bishop] feared to tread on them lest he should leave a foot mark.
Unfortunately, nothing of this palace remains today

The same is true of the Lusignan palace in Nicosia, but Volume 4 of A History of the Crusades: The Art and Architecture of the Crusader States, Hazard, Harry W ed. provides the following summary:
The royal palace, adjoining the church of St. Dominic, seemed to travelers the finest in the world. Its great throne room, its balconies, its golden ornaments, its tapestries, pictures, organs, and clocks, its baths, gardens and menageries suggest the most sumptuous of medieval residences. (p. 175)
While both the above passages refer to palaces (baronial and royal respectively), the following is a more general commentary on Frankish domestic architecture in the crusader states. Writing after the re-conquest of Jerusalem by Saladin in 1187, Ibn-Khallikan wrote:
"the infidel had rebuilt [Jerusalem] with columns and plaques of marble...with fair fountains where the water never ceased to flow--one saw dwellings as agreeable as gardens and brilliant with the whiteness of marble; the columns with their foliage seemed like trees." (quoted in Hazard, p. 138.)
Yet only scattered fragments of this sophisticated urban secular architecture from the crusader period have survived into the present. Even these remains have largely been obscured by the changing styles and functions of that altered the appearance of crusader structures almost beyond recognition in subsequent centuries. 

However, descriptions such as those cited above as well as systematic analysis of the archeological evidence enables us to imagine a great deal. As a novelist writing about the crusader kingdoms, I am compelled to utilize all existing sources, both written and archaeological — and then add a hefty dose of imagination. What follows is a short survey of the key elements that would have defined an urban dwelling in the crusader kingdoms.

Due to a general scarcity of wood, the basic building material in the Middle East in the crusader period was stone and/or brick. The latter, and often the former, was plastered over and whitewashed, both inside and out, or faced with marble in the case of important and representational buildings. The floors of poorer dwellings were either beaten earth or cut out of the bedrock, while upper floors were plaster. In wealthier homes the floors were usually flagstone on the ground floor, marble or mosaic. Courtyards were usually paved with cobbles.

The basic building block of houses in the Holy Land were vaults. Barrel vaults were the easiest and most fundamental building block and could be stacked on top of one another at perpendicular angles for several stories. A good example of this is the Hospitaller Castle of Kolossi. Below are three images of vaulted chambers: one an upstairs chamber from the Hospitaller castle at Kolossi, one a cellar from the Byzantine/Crusader castle of St. Hilarion, and the third showing a wine or oil press in the ground-floor chamber, something very common in the crusader kingdoms.













Groin vaults and rib-vaults, however, was also common, particularly in larger structures such as palaces, monasteries, customs houses, and the like. Here is an image of beautiful vaulting from Bellapais Monastery on Cyprus.




Most houses in the crusader states appear to have had at least one, and in urban areas -- particularly in the 13th century -- as many as three upper floors. The upper floors were often reached by means of an external stairway over a arch (see photo below), or by means of internal wooden stairs or even ladders through trap doors. In larger, rural structures, stairs could also be built into the thickness of the walls. The house below, located on Kythera, is much younger (17th century Venetian), but it has many of the features of crusader urban architecture.


Most buildings in the Middle East were crowned, then as now, by flat roofs (that might be decoratively crenelated) that often provided additional living or work space in the form of a roof-top terrace that could be shaded from the sun by canvas awnings, or a vine arbor. 

Whether used as a terrace or not, rooftops almost always collected rain water in a cistern.  Indeed, even the poorest and smallest of urban dwellings had cisterns, often several. All had settlement tanks to help purify the water.  Water could be pumped from these tanks to the kitchens or latrines. 

Many urban dwellings would have been built around one or a series of courtyards. These in turn contained cisterns or sometimes wells, kitchen and formal gardens, or working space, depending on the wealth of the occupant. The courtyard below in Jerusalem has many medieval elements and does not look so very different from what it could have looked like in the 12th century.


The courtyard in the next photo is from the Hospitaller headquarters in Acre. It is an example of a more spectacular, 13th century courtyard and only relevant for public buildings, but it is indicative of style, taste and crusader capabilities.


Poorer residents, who could no afford a house large enough to surround one or more courtyards often shared a communal courtyard. Around a courtyard, several dwellings were clustered, all with access to the common courtyard.  

Despite the prevalence of courtyards, Frankish houses were not inward-looking. Unlike their Arab contemporaries, the houses of the rich had beautiful balconies and logias that looked out over the streets from the upper stories. The roof of the logia in urban areas might be supported either by an arcade or by pillars. Some of these pillars were reclaimed Roman pillars, employed in a new function, but the Franks were skilled at producing pillars themselves and the capitals of these were famous -- even among their enemies -- for the lifelike quality of their decoration. In rural settings the logia could be even more dramatic as in the example below from St. Hilarion on Cyprus.



The working class on the other hand had workshops and store fronts that opened onto the street at ground level.


Doors throughout the Frankish territories from the mid-12th century until the end of Frankish rule were usually made by a wide, slightly pointed arch. This arch, borrowed from the Arabs before the beginning of true Gothic architecture in the West, was the dominant, indeed iconic, shape of crusader architecture. Poorer dwellings or secondary doors, however, could be square.


Windows could be either arched or square, with the Romanesque forms of “double-” or “triple-light” windows as common in the Holy Land as in the countries of the crusaders’ origin. Below is a lovely example of a medieval portal in Jerusalem, and left and right are two examples of windows from St. Hilarion and Krak de Chevaliers respectively.



Because there were major glass producing centers in the crusader states (notably Tyre and Beirut), window glazing was more common in the crusader states than in the West, a fact supported by both archaeological finds and descriptions. Right is an example of crusader glass manufacture. While the context is different, this glass demonstrates the very high quality of the industry generally.

Archaeological evidence suggests the Franks used both plate glass and round glass set in plaster (the latter being presumably much cheaper and more common) for their windows. Below is an example of the round glass technique used here in the Templar Church in Famagusta, Cyprus.




As the description at the start of this essay indicated, interior décor could include poly-chrome marble, but mosaics and glazed tiles may also have been used. Certainly, a wide variety of crusader glazed pottery has been found, using cream colors, yellows, greens and blues. The pottery gives us some indication of what colors and motifs could have been used on floor and wall tiles, although the evidence is lacking. To the right is an example of crusader pottery.



However, we also know that the Turks and Saracens were very fond of brilliant blues and turquoise tiles in later centuries, and these may also have been available to the crusaders. At least I like to imagine it so! Below is an example of modern tile work just to hint at the possibilities.
As for mosaics, the description at the start of the article is perhaps the best indication of quality and the fact that life-like motifs were possible in the crusader era. However, we should not forget that mosaics floors were very common in the Roman and Byzantine periods, and the many crusader residences in fact dated from earlier periods and retained these older tiles. Below is a picture of tiles that date back the 4th century AD and were allegedly commission by St. Helena. Particularly under the influence of the Byzantine brides of Baldwin III and Amalric I, Byzantine styles and artists were welcomed and employed in the crusader kingdoms. They would easily have produced tiles similar to this example from the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.


Last but not least, as the contemporary written descriptions stress, no description of urban architecture in the crusader states (at least for the “upper crust”) would be complete without reference to gardens. Frankish elites oriented their houses so that their (glazed) windows looked out at either views (such as the ocean) or gardens. The Holy Land offered a variety of beautiful vegetation from trees such a palms and olives, lemons and pomegranates, to flowers such as hibiscus and oleander. Frankish gardens would have been beautiful indeed.  So to conclude, here is a picture of a garden in the crusader church of St. Anne in Jerusalem today.



Note: All photos except the glass and pottery were taken by the author. 

Recommended reading: Andrian Boas' Domestic Settings: Sources on Domestic Architecture and Day-to-Day Activities in the Crusader States, Brill, 2010.

Life in the crusader kingdoms is described in my three part biography of Balian d’Ibelin:


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