• Adrian J. Boas

On Apricots and Misconceptions

The esteemed French Historian, Jacques Le Goff regarded the crusader movement as having had very little influence on the cultural and economic development of medieval Europe. Indeed, he was of the opinion that it had little influence on just about anything and he even refers to "the mirage of Outremer (the Latin East)" as if it had not really existed. He wrote for example:

"The crusades brought western Europe neither commercial growth, which had arisen out of earlier links with the Muslim world and out of the internal development of the western economy, nor skills and products, which came by other routes; nor intellectual equipment, which was provided by translation centres and libraries in Greece, Italy (above all in Sicily), and Spain, where contacts were close and productive."*

There is no denying the vast importance of the relationships that had developed between the East and West before the First Crusade, by the seaport of Amalfi in particular, and by other Italian city states trading with Egypt, north Africa and the Iberian peninsula, or the activities of Jewish merchants trading between East and West, and the important commercial, cultural and religious ties that had developed between the West and the Byzantine Empire. But to state, as Le Goff did, that "The Holy Land was a battle front, not a centre of cultural borrowing…" was to entirely write off one of the principal contributions of the Latin East to European and indeed also to Eastern civilisation.

For it was exactly that - a centre of cultural borrowing - and much more. An intimate connection had resulted from the presence over several centuries of Frankish populations living among Muslims and eastern Christians. This presence had a much more profound influence on both civilisations (East and West) than had previously been possible by merely trading with them through, at best, small and often threatened outposts. Combined with the much more intense and often more lucrative trade that was possible with Italian communes permanently settled in the eastern sea ports and largely controlling the commerce passing through those ports, Outremer did indeed played a central role in influencing and developing European commerce, industry, art, architecture, and numerous other areas of cultural and social activity. And it not only borrowed, it developed and created.

One could write an almost endless list of examples where the Frankish presence in the Levant, and the ways in which both Franks and non-Franks reacted to that presence through cultural exchange, led to major developments in both societies and in many fields. The introduction of the ogival arch into European architecture as a basic element in the new Gothic style took place a half century after the conquest of Jerusalem, a place where that element had been prominently present since the end of the seventh century. It seems more than a coincidence. The development of military architecture, armour, personal weapons and siege weapons underwent their greatest advances as Christians faced Muslims, and subsequently these developments had profound influences both on Europe and the Muslim East. The military orders, that were to play a prominent role in European history, finances, welfare and politics, first evolved in the kingdom of Jerusalem. Industries such as glass manufacture and glazed ceramics, that had a long history in the East, jump-started industries in the West, and refined cane sugar, unknown in the West prior to the crusades, was first developed into an industry in the kingdom of Jerusalem (and has become today the chief cause of obesity and oral disease throughout the world - not all influences from Outremer were positive). The return to the gold standard in Europe that came about with the minting of gold currency by the Italian city states from the mid-thirteenth century on, was most probably a direct outcome of Italian commercial activity in the Latin East where a gold coin, the besant, had been introduce a century and a half earlier, taking the form of an imitation Fatimid gold dinar. The advances made in shipping and in all of the apparatus that evolved to improve both passenger and commercial shipping, were largely the result of the Italian involvement in Levantine commercial and pilgrimage traffic. Increased stone construction in the West and the introduction of wall chimneys for heating in European houses probably lies in the influence of the Latin East, as perhaps does the origin of heraldry that once enabled warriors to identify a heavily armoured knight on the battlefield and today decorates car hoods, soccer team banners and cigarette packages. Even specific heraldic motifs now prominent in the West, such as the fleur-de-lis and the cornflower (see my earlier posts on these) may have originated in the Latin East.

Le Goff saw none of this. In a final statement, entirely dismissing any substantial or positive influence that the crusades and the Latin East might have had on the West, he cast aspersions on the aptitudes of any historian who might take a different view:

"Probably a few Italian towns, notably Genoa and Venice, were able to enrich themselves from the benefits which accrued not from trade, but from hiring out ships and lending money to the crusaders, but no serious historian any longer believes that the crusades stimulated the awakening and growth of commerce in medieval western Europe. On the contrary, they helped to impoverish the west, especially the knightly class… Probably the apricot was the only benefit brought back from the crusades by the Christians."

That as esteemed a medievalist as Le Goff reached such conclusions shows how misunderstood the crusades, the Latin East and the coalition of Franks and Italian city-states were at the time he wrote them, and sometimes remain today. For an answer to some of Le Goff's remarks it is worth reading the very useful statements of another eminent historian, Michel Balard.** Le Goff's dismissive final remark about the apricot, certainly intended as a witticism, only adds to the inaccuracy of his entire statement. The apricot (prunus Armeniaca) as its name illustrates, was grown in Armenia, but it probably originated in China, and from there spread to India and Persia, arriving in Europe possibly at the time of Alexander the Great. Pliny refers to it by the name praecocia a reference to its precocious nature, ripening early, hence its name in English.***

* Jacques Le Goff, Medieval Civilization 400-1500, English trans. Julia Barrow, Oxford and New York, 1988 (La civilisation de l'Occident medieval, Paris, 1964), pp. 66-7.

** Michel Balard "Notes on the Economic Consequences of the Crusades" in The Experience of Crusading, vol. 2, Defining the Crusading Kingdom, eds. Peter Edbury and Jonathan Phillips, Cambridge, 2003, pp. 233-39.

***Pliny 15.12.