By Christopher J. Marshall
Rivista di Bizantinistica Vol.1 (1991)
Introduction: Throughout the 200 years of its existence, the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem was heavily reliant upon the Italian city republics for the import and export of goods; in the formative years of the kingdom’s history, this dependence extended to the military sphere. In the absence of a fleet of its own, the Italian ships were essential for the successful besieging of such coastal cities as Caesarea, Arsuf and Acre, without which the continued existence of the kingdom would have been placed in some jeopardy. Their importance in this respect was noted by one of the early accounts of this period of the kingdom’s history; the role of the Venetians at Haifa in 1100 would be “in order that, blockaded and oppressed from both the sea and land, the town should be captured.” As an acknowledgement of the key role which the Italians played, they were granted major commercial privileges in the cities and ports of the kingdom; in the case of the Genoese, these were as much as total exemption on the usual entrance, exit, buying and selling duties at the chaine and the fonde, although such extensive rights became increasingly rare in the course of the twelfth century. It has recently been shown that in spite of the remarkable privileges which were granted to the Italians, the structure of trade was such as to ensure that there was little loss of revenue for the kingdom, but it still seems that historians, tending to concentrate on the commercial angle of the Italians’ role in the Latin East, have assumed that from the time of the kingdom’s establishment, the priorities of the city republics lay, to the exclusion of all else, with the gaining of commercial privileges. One historian of Genoese trade, for example, remarked that “it would almost seem to them (…) the crusade was a matter of indifference except as it affected their material prosperity.”
For the Italian republics which sent their ships to the Holy Land in the course of the First Crusade and the earliest period of the Latin Kingdom, military commitment produced commercial privileges, but it would be wrong to conclude that concern for the latter was the only reason for the presence of the Italians in the Latin East. It would be unreasonable to argue that commercial prospects played no part in the military involvement of the Italians, just as it would be to believe that all crusaders were motivated by purely religious factors, but the sources for this period of the kingdom’s history reveal that there was a religious element in the reasons for Italian expeditions to the Holy Land. So military involvement of the Italians in the Latin East at this time was a product of, on the one hand, the search for a stake in the commercial prospects of the new kingdom, and on the other, an awareness of the spiritual value pertaining to the crusade and the subsequent defence and expansion of the Latin Kingdom. It is with the latter that we are concerned, although the two elements should by no means be regarded as contradictory.