• Adrian J. Boas

On Flexibility and Transformation

The Negev Desert. Photograph by Michal Rokni / CC BY-SA (

At a certain point it became apparent to me that at the age of sixteen my bridges were burnt. I had initially regarded immigrating to Israel as a good thing, mainly because it meant getting away from an environment in which I had been feeling more and more like a man thrown overboard and struggling to keep his head above the waves. Like my parents, who often took actions and only then began to think about their consequences, I had not given much thought as to what effect moving across the world into entirely different surroundings would have on every aspect of my life. When an understanding of this soon enough came crashing down on me I took solace in the strangeness and beauty of the new surroundings, but it was some considerable time before I came to terms with the permanence of this new situation and learnt to appreciate the remarkable capability we possess of adjusting to and making the most of unavoidable circumstance. It was perhaps the most important lesson in my life.

Like most historians taking on a vast and complex topic, Joshua Prawer had conflicting opinions about the character of the crusaders and of the Franks who settled in the East. He writes expansively about many of their achievements in various fields, but I have always found somewhat disconcerting certain statements he repeated on occasion in his writing to the effect that the Franks were set in their ways and were not innovative. Here is an example: “The kingdom drew its inspiration from European experience and seldom ventured to innovate [my italics], unless forced to by local conditions”.* On another occasion he wrote: “The crusaders, who were not very flexible in their ways [my italics], fell back on native talent, and long before the appearance of the 'spahee' in the French army, the crusaders created native regiments called Turcopoles (sons of the Turks) that copied the Seljuk Turks in armament and techniques of fighting.”** These were comments that to me appear to come into conflict with so much else that he wrote about the Frankish settlers and indeed so much that has been recorded elsewhere and has come to light through archaeological research.

Prawer was not alone in suggesting that the Franks were hardly innovative. R.C. Smail, in his brilliant study on crusader warfare, after listing the modifications Franks settling in the East had made to their lives wrote: "The Franks' mode of life had changed in some externals [my italics]; yet how much more remarkable it would have been had such changes not taken place."*** In other words, Smail saw the changes as superficial and believed that there was nothing remarkable about them considering the circumstances and surroundings they found themselves in.

I find these remarks, made by two great scholars, both so well-acquainted with the history of the crusades and the Latin East, somewhat difficult to comprehend and contradictory to much of what can in fact be seen of the way of life established by the settlers, certainly in matters relating to their defence, which Prawer allows was an area in which they were innovative, but also in their administration, in their commercial activities, in settlement, in lay and religious ceremony, in the many arts and other forms of material culture in which they were involved and in numerous aspects of daily life. It is not hard to understand a careful Smail's distain for those scholars of the crusades who took a bolder approach (he quotes the French historian, René Groisset's statement regarding the formation of a new Franco-Syrian nation, a “Nouvelle-France” established and firmly taking root in the native setting of the Levant.**** But I think that it was precisely that, or something very near to that that was underway, even if it did not reach fruition in all its various facets.

* Joshua Prawer, The Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, London, 1972, p. 252.

** Joshua Prawer, The World of the Crusaders, New York, 1972, p. 132.

*** R.C. Smail, Crusading Warfare, Cambridge, 1956, p. 43.

**** René Groisset, Histoire des croisades et du royaume franc de Jérusalem, vol. 1, Paris, 1934, pp. 227-28.