top of page
  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On Cacti, Colts and Natives

The prickly pear, Opuntia, a genus in the cactus family, Cactaceae is a native to the Americas. It was introduced to Australia in the eighteenth century where it rapidly became invasive, eventually converting some 260,000 square kilometres of farmland into useless wasteland locally known as the "green hell". It became the source of legend and of a famous poem (Pear Days in Queensland by Geoffrey Lehmann – Days of pear-madness, nights of pear-murder we spent/Digging and burning the prickly-pear…). Its spread was only arrested in 1925 when a moth with the delightful name Cactoblastis cactorum was introduced from South America, in honour of which a memorial hall was built near Chinchilla, Queensland, perhaps the only national monument in the world erected in honour of an insect.

The prickly pear was also introduced to the Middle East without any of the disastrous ecological effects experienced in the antipodes. It became established in many Arab villages and was regarded almost as a native. In Israel the Hebrew word for prickly pear, Tsabar (צבר) was applied, prior to the foundation of the Jewish state, to native born Jews, then a less prominent sector of the largely immigrant population, and locally admired for their supposedly cactus like prickly exterior but soft interior. Without debating the accuracy of this analogy or how representative it is of the vast majority of natives in today's Israeli population, it makes for an interesting comparison with an earlier settlement in the Holy Land that also began as predominantly immigrant, but developed an increasingly native-born population.

In the twelfth century the Latin term pullani (poulains in French) was applied to native Latins, sons of crusaders or immigrants from the West. The literal meaning of this term is “colts”, which perhaps intended to identify these new, locally born Latins as young and wild. There may be a more prosaic explanation of the origins of this title, but whatever its source, pullani is a complex appellation, sometimes used with pride, sometimes, more often perhaps, used derogatively. The twelfth century English historian and Augustinian canon, William of Newburgh, stated that the pullani were "between Christians and Saracens, [but] seem to be neither one thing nor the other."* Yet, to themselves they appear to have had less of a problem with their identity than did outsiders. And while they willingly adopted from local customs, they retained a separate existence from the Muslims and from the Eastern Christians.

Westerners were frequently outspoken in their disapproval of these native Latins. One critic, the Cistercian prior, Caesarius of Heisterbach, referred to the pullani as dedicated to the extravagances of gluttony and carnal pleasures and hardly different from beasts. Another, often caustic critic, James of Vitry wrote of the pullani, as brought up in debauchery and dedicated to the pleasures of the flesh. He claimed that they were more open to fighting with one another than with the Muslims, and criticised them for keeping their women segregated, an apparent adoption of the Muslim custom of restricting women to private quarters. But perhaps he goes a bit too far, even claiming that pullani women poisoned their husbands in order to marry other men.

What was it about the pullani that generated such negativity? It seems to be the very thing that found favour in the eyes of a Muslim critic of the Franks, Usamah ibn Munqidh, who considered them at least better than the new arrivals who were ruder in character. These local-born Franks knew how to interact with their Muslim neighbours. And the French knight, John of Joinville, shows how a degree of pride, albeit a very slight one, could be taken in the title:

Now the peasants of that land are called colts; and Master Peter of Avallon, who lived at Tyre, heard tell that I was being called a colt, because I had advised the king to remain among the colts; so Master Peter of Avallon sent to tell me I should defend myself against those who called me colt, and say to them that I liked better to be a colt than broken-down hack, such as they were.**

The pullani were a new strain, half-baked perhaps, still carrying the baggage of their European origins, but born in the East and moulded by it. These were a different breed of Latins, raised in Nablus, in Paphos and Tripoli, and in the villages of Parva Mahumeria and Aram near Jerusalem. They preserved the customs of their parents, and much of their way of life was a legacy from the institutions, conventions and rituals their parents had known and brought with them from the West. But this was only part of their makeup. They admired and adopted the customs of their Eastern neighbours; they began to wear similar clothes, to eat the same types of food and to enjoy the same entertainments. Some of the coins they minted imitated Muslim coins. They adopted some aspects of their neighbours' art and architecture. They learnt from the local population on hygiene and medicine, they frequented bathhouses and built covered bazaars in their cities. They picked up some words of Arabic and incorporated them into their speech and writing and they learnt, used and altered the local place names in a blending or Arabic or Hebrew with French. The Hebrew Cochava (כוכבה) and Arabic Kawkab al-Hawa ( كوكب الهوا) became Coquet, Bet Govrin became Bethgibelin, Maale Adumim became Malduim.

The second generation of these Latins was entirely at home in the East. No longer strangers in a strange land, they were as native as the Suriani (Eastern Christians) and the Saracens. The distance they had travelled from their origins was great enough to earn them the above-mentioned condemnation of visitors from the West who saw them as having descended into the deplorable practises of their pagan neighbours. But as much as they had changed, they remained a rather strange, partly-cooked amalgamation of East and West. Had the Latin East survived long enough, the pullani might have eventually evolved into something more substantial, but the intermittent crusades, collapses and revivals, departures of settled people and influxes of new arrivals, prevented them from ever being more than just one ingredient of a multifaceted society.

* William of Newburgh, Chronicles of the Reigns of Stephen, Henry II and Richard I, ed. Richard Howlett, 1884-89, vol. 1, Cambridge, 1884,001-000 reprinted 2012, p. 254. Caesarii Heisterbacensis Monachi Ordinis Cisterciensis Dialogus Miraculorum, ed. J. Strange, I, Cologne, 1851, p. 187. ** John of Joinville, p. 243. See also Caesarii Heisterbacensis Monachi Ordinis Cisterciensis Dialogus Miraculorum, ed. J. Strange, I, Cologne, 1851, p. 187; James of Vitry in Malcolm Barber and Keith Bate (trans.) Letters from the East, Farnham and Burlington, 2013, no. 57, p. 102 and Usamah ibn Munqidh, trans. Paul Cobb, London, 2008, p. 153.

96 views4 comments

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page