Colonialism and the Crusades: Evaluating Joshua Prawer’s and Lucy Anne Hunt’s interpretations

This essay will critically evaluate two historiographical approaches to the nature of the crusades. An examination of these approaches will focus particularly on the concept of colonialism. Prawer’s 1973 work on the subject identified the Crusades as the ‘first European colonial society,’ due to the crusaders policy of non-integration with the natives.[1] Hans Mayer’s ‘Latins, Muslims and Greeks in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem,’ published six years after Prawer’s work, largely agrees with Prawer’s views, that the Kingdom of Jerusalem was a colonial state, as proved through the examination of social and legal divides.[2] However Lucy Anne Hunts 1991 work on ‘the Problem of ‘Crusader’ art’ argues that artistic development during the Crusades demonstrates a degree of cultural hybridity which would negate the idea of colonialist separatism. This essay will examine the respective arguments, methodologies and limitations of Mayer and Hunt with respect to their contribution to the existing arguments concerning the nature of colonialism at the time of the Crusades.

Mayer and Hunt have distinctly different arguments concerning the nature of the crusader states. Mayer asserts that the crusader states were colonialist states, like Prawer. Although the word ‘colonialist’ is not used, Mayer paints a picture of a world in which the native Muslims were ‘devoid of political rights,’ and that there were many divisions within the crusader societies.[3] His assertion that Muslims were perceived to be simply ‘objects of taxation’ by the crusaders reinforces the perception of native inferiority, and does not illustrate a harmonious picture between conqueror and conquered.[4] Mayer explores the exploitation of the natives by looking at the law. When assessing property, throughout the crusader states, if a family had ten gold pieces worth of property, they were forced to pay one percent of this money as tax. However, the rich manipulated this rule, and by declaring that they had been overcharged, and swearing the value of their property under oath, their property could not be extorted. The rich would therefore swear that their property was worth less than what was originally judged, allowing them to keep their money. The native Muslims were not afforded this loophole and were therefore exploited by the crusaders.[5] Mayer appears to select appropriate evidence when making his argument, as it is clear that the rich were willing to manipulate and exploit the poor native Muslims for their own financial gain. This would naturally create an imbalance of social and legal equality, as the Muslims were treated as inferiors by the colonisers.

Hunt’s article concerning artistic developments in contrast argues that cultural mixing occurred within the crusader states. She argues that art can tell us about local traditions and change in taste, proposing that religion is the cause for cultural change.[6] Hunt uses the Church of the nativity to epitomize this, which was completed in 1169.[7] The Church demonstrates the collaboration between the king of Jerusalem and the Byzantine emperor, and from this Hunt argues that crusader art can be termed neither exclusively western or Byzantine.[8] She uses S. Bochner to support her view, who argued that different cultures ‘mutually exert influence on each other’s ethnicity.’[9] Hunt and Bochner both agree that the colonialists and Byzantinists were influenced by each other, and therefore adopted each other’s artistic styles. The arguments of both historians concerning the crusades are radically different, as Mayer asserts the view that the crusader states maintained legal and social divides, much like the colonial states, whereas Hunt argues that through art, the crusader states were places of cultural mixing and hybridity.

The methodologies and evidence of both interpreters also differ. Mayer primarily uses written and eyewitness accounts to support his view. Mayer cites the account of Fulcher of Chartres, who notes that the Saracens mourned the death of King Baldwin I in 1118, along with the Franks and Syrians.[10] Chartres was a chronicler of Baldwin I, and by citing this account Mayer affirms his belief that there were social divides within the crusader states, as he notes that Muslims could only participate in public life upon the death of a king.[11] Another written source comes from William of Tyre, who reported that Muslims also attended the funeral of King Baldwin III.[12] Prawer too had mentioned this six years previously in his work, arguing that the only function of the indigenous Muslim population was to mourn the deaths of Frankish kings.[13] Mayer’s methodology, and information about the social and legal standing of the natives, comes purely from first-hand accounts and written texts, which differs greatly from Hunt’s evidence, who prioritises that of physical buildings.

Hunt uses the inscriptions in the Church of the Nativity in Jerusalem to further her argument. Inscribed in the nave is the name Basil, and Ephraim in the south side of the apse.[14] Ephraim was a monk and artist, who completed his work in the Church in 1169.[15] Cutler describes Ephraim as a byzantine mosaicist who was called from Constantinople by the Byzantine Emperor Manuel.[16] This western influence can be seen in the Church. Western saints, such as the Virgin, are heavily featured and represented, as is St John the Baptist, whose Jordan monastery was also restored by Manuel.[17] The abundance of Christian iconography, Hunt believes, demonstrates that there was not one distinct culture in the crusader states that influenced the building of the Church of the Nativity.[18] Basil’s own inscription appeared twenty years after Ephraim’s, in Syriac, an unspoken language affiliated with the orthodox church.[19] Hunt asserts that Basil was a Syrian Melkite, who could have been a deacon controlled by the Latin clergy, as Orthodox Syrians were favoured by the Latins over the Greeks.[20] The differing heritage of the artists demonstrates, in Hunt’s eyes, that the crusaders adopted different cultural and artistic techniques in the crusader states, proving them to be areas of cultural mixing and hybridity. She described the Church of the Nativity to be the epitome of such ideas, as both native and western artists worked on the Church, as inferred from the artists’ inscriptions and the western art itself. This appears logical, as one can visually understand and see the artists’ difference in heritage and design, which clearly demonstrates the amalgamation of western and Byzantine ideas within the crusader states.

However, when critically assessing the articles, both present limitations. Mayer focuses on an account from a Spanish traveller, Ibn Jubayr, who travelled to Acre, in 1184.[21] The account reinforces the idea that there was separation between different groups of people in the Kingdom of Jerusalem at the time of the crusades, but paints an idyllic view of their life, particularly in the coastal regions.[22] One can criticise Mayer’s selection of evidence here, as there is conflict between maximalist and minimalist interpretations. When taking the maximalist approach, one could argue that the source has worth as there are accurate descriptions of the ruling class within it, and it supports the colonialist argument, much like Prawer. However, one could downplay the value of the source as Jubayr takes a minimalist view, as he makes generic assumptions about the entire kingdom based on one village that he very briefly visited. He was an elite Muslim himself, and it is unlikely that he was shown areas of squalor and suffering on his tour, proving that Jubayr only provides a snapshot of life within Jerusalem. Written accounts are also open to interpretation, as proved by Jubayr’s mentioning of a functioning Mosque in Acre.[23] From this one can ascertain that Mosques were allowed by the Latin settlers in major urban settlements such as Acre, but this begs the question as to whether they were permitted in other places. Jubayr’s account does not provide an explicit answer, as he did not travel enough of the kingdom to ascertain this knowledge. The source therefore is open to interpretation and cannot reliably be used to learn about the crusader states as a whole.

Hunts use of physical evidence too presents problems, as well as her own background. Dumbarton Oaks is an American research institute, focussing on Byzantine studies. Hunt herself is a Byzantinist, and therefore may be biased and willing to over highlight the importance of the Byzantine images within the Church of the Nativity. Her main problem is that art is subjective, and that Hunt cannot categorically confirm how the art was received at the time. Like some of Mayer’s chosen texts, she provides a snapshot of the conditions and excludes other communities in the process, such as religious ones. Her article would be further improved if she looked at artistic developments over an extended period of time, and widened her sources. The Church of the Nativity is a special case, as it is an important site, its presence does not mean that all artwork in the Kingdom of Jerusalem displayed such cultural integration. It is also worth noting that such huge artistic works would have been designed by the elite, and perhaps used for political gain, as it was the elite groups in society that decided how cultural integration was perceived and represented.[24] Response art and graffiti would have also been helpful to Hunt. The presence of such in art in churches, like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, could demonstrate the presence of other cultures and strengthen her argument.

Despite these limitations, there is a brief crossover between the two sources, as Mayer notes the different figures that contributed to the repairing of the Church of the Nativity. Emperor Manuel I was the protector of the Greek church by office and extended this protection to the crusader states.[25] The merging of the kingdom of Jerusalem with the Byzantine was influenced by the marriage of King Amaury of Jerusalem to Byzantine princess Maria Komnene, sparking an alliance with Emperor Manuel.[26] Following the couples’ state visit to Constantinople, Emperor Manuel repaired parts of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and in 1169, ordered the building of new mosaics in the Church of the Nativity. The Latin inscriptions mention the ‘payments of the Emperor,’ and the Greek inscriptions mention the ‘overlordship of the Emperor.’[27] This demonstrates that there was collaboration between the Latins and the Byzantinists in repairing the Church, advocating the presence of hybridity in the crusader states. Manuel himself too was painted in various places around the church as a reward from the Bishop of Bethlehem for his work.[28] Although the arguments of Hunt and Mayer differ, the evidence cited by Mayer can be used to support the idea of cultural hybridity within the crusader states.

Both articles appear to contribute to the already existing arguments about the crusader states. As noted previously, although Mayer’s article does not include the word ‘colonial’ it appears to be heavily influenced by the work of Prawer. Speaking in 1984 at a symposium, Prawer maintained that the crusader states were forged with a ‘colonial attitude,’ and that invaders did not accept local cultures and would not integrate with the Muslims, resulting in an ‘apartheid.’[29] Mayer’s findings about the legal and social divides within the crusader states harks back to Prawer’s idea, and contributes to it. Art was not explicitly mentioned at the symposium, but Hunt’s advocation of cultural hybridity within the crusader states, was reflected in the words of Professor Moses Finley, who criticised Prawer and noted that the rulers of the Kingdom of Jerusalem asked the west for help, and maintained many links with Europe which could have led to cultural mixing between the two.[30] Finley rejects the idea that the aim of the crusader states was independence, and although he does not discuss art as explicitly as Hunt does, her idea that the crusader states were not devoid of Byzantine influence can be linked back to Finley’s ideas.

The work of both Mayer and Hunt are indirectly cited in a 2017 book by Andrew Jotischky, demonstrating their continued relevance. Again, Mayer’s ideas are explored through the work of Prawer, as Jotischky discusses the legal and social institutions in place in crusader states. His assertion, based on Prawer’s, that the indigenous population were marginalised by the crusaders, too echoes back to the work and argument of Mayer, even though Mayer is not explicitly mentioned.[31] Jotischky also mentions the artistic culture within the crusader states, implying that the work of Hunt may have been present in his mind. Jotischky uses the example of the Church of the Nativity like Hunt, and notes that, due to the amalgamation of eastern and western artistry, the Church displays ‘cultural synthesis.’[32] The presence of western artistry is confirmed by the presence of western saints, perhaps showing Hunt’s influence on Jotischky’s work. Jotischky also cites the background of the artists Ephraim and Basil as Hunt does, to illustrate the hybridity of culture within the church. The similarities in the works of Hunt and Jotischky imply that the latter was directly influenced by the former, demonstrating the relevance of Hunt’s work and its impact upon the wider critical debate.

The works of both Mayer and Hunt differ greatly in their arguments and methodology. They both sit at opposite ends of the spectrum when discussing whether the crusader states can be seen as colonial states or states that allowed cultural mixing. Both works are well researched and argued, but are also both flawed. Written texts appear to lack credibility upon interpretation, and the subjectivity of art should not be ignored, but also should not dampen the significance of Meyer and Hunt’s work. Such flaws can perhaps explain why the debate about the true nature of the crusader states continues. Despite their differences and flaws, the work and arguments of Mayer and Hunt are clearly still relevant to the crusader debate, as they can be seen to, indirectly and directly, influence Jotischky’s recent work on the topic.


[1] B.Z Kedar (ed.), ‘The Crusading Kingdom of Jerusalem – The First European Colonial Society? A Symposium’, in The Horns of Hattin (Jerusalem, 1992), p. 341.

[2] H.E. Mayer, ‘Latins, Muslims and Greeks in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem’, History, Vol.63 (1978), p. 175.

[3] Ibid., p. 175.

[4] Ibid., p. 177.

[5] Ibid., p. 178

[6] L-A Hunt, ‘Art and Colonialism: The Mosaics of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem (1169) and the Problem of ‘Crusader’ Art’, Dumbarton Oaks Papers, Vol. 45 (1991), p. 71.

[7] Ibid., p. 71.

[8] Ibid., p. 69.

[9] Ibid., p. 71.

[10] Mayer, ‘Latins, Muslims and Greeks in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem’, p. 180.

[11] Ibid., p. 180

[12] Ibid., p. 180

[13] A. Jotischky, Crusading and the Crusader States, (London, 2017), p. 17.

[14] Hunt, ‘Art and Colonialism: The Mosaics of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem (1169) and the Problem of ‘Crusader’ Art’, p. 74.

[15] Ibid., p. 74.

[16] Ibid., p. 75.

[17] Ibid., p. 76.

[18] Ibid., p. 77.

[19] Ibid., p. 75.

[20] Ibid., p. 76.

[21] Mayer, ‘Latins, Muslims and Greeks in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem’, p. 181.

[22] Ibid., p. 181.

[23] Ibid., p. 186, n. 41.

[24] Hunt, ‘Art and Colonialism: The Mosaics of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem (1169) and the Problem of ‘Crusader’ Art’, p. 70.

[25] Ibid., p. 190.

[26] Ibid., p. 190.

[27] Ibid., p. 190.

[28] Ibid., p. 190.

[29] B.Z. Kedar (ed.), The Horns of Hattin, p. 364.

[30] Ibid., p. 345.

[31] Jotischky, Crusading and the Crusader States, p. 18.

[32] Ibid., p. 158.

Published by harpalkhambay

I'm a third year English Literature and History student, and wanted a space to explore topics within those fields that interest me.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: