It is still common for people today to believe (and tell others) that most noblemen and knights in “the Middle Ages” were illiterate. Even authors of otherwise quite credible historical fiction make this assumption about their knightly and even noble characters. In reality, the noblemen of Outremer were not only literate, many of them were highly sophisticated scholars and jurists.
The court-system in the Kingdom of Jerusalem required both jurors and counsellors at every trial and these men were all drawn from the knightly class. They all had to be versed in the law and capable of entering and refuting pleas, of debating, deliberating and rendering judgement based on a legal opinion. Indeed, every knight in the realm had the right to sit in the High Court and deliberate on existential issues such as the selection of regents, taxes and treaties. They were expected to know the law, and that meant reading about it.
Even more extraordinary, in the mid-13th century, an entire school of legal scholars evolved that wrote no less than seven books on legal issues and six other scholarly works. These men, none of whom were in Holy Orders and all of whom held fiefs, fought with sword and lance on horseback, and commanded troops, wrote histories, books of poems, philosophical works and legal discourses. Riley-Smith goes so far as to write: “Perhaps the greatest monument to the western settlers in Palestine, finer even than the cathedrals and castles still dominating the landscape, is the law-book of John of Jaffa, which…is one of the great works of thirteenth-century thought.” (The Feudal Nobility and the Kingdom of Jerusalem 1174 – 1277, Jonathan Riley-Smith, Macmillan Press, 1973, p. 230.)
These books were not, however, merely philosophical or scholarly. They were also meant a practical handbooks for the ordinary knight and burgess involved in litigation, for his counsellors and jurors. Thus, in addition to discussing the theories and issues, these books provided practical advice on the procedures for filing cases, how to protect witnesses, how to answer an opponent and test his evidence, the importance of using the right words ― even how to use the law to one’s advantage!
Moving from the abstract to the specific, let me introduce you to some of the most prominent among them:
Arguably the first of the great jurists of Jerusalem was none other than Aimery de Lusignan, the elder brother of the incompetent Guy de Lusignan (who usurped a crown only to lose the kingdom in less than a year). Aimery was a very different man than Guy, notably popular with the same barons who detested his brother. He had been in the Holy Land since about 1175. He was named Constable of the Kingdom by Baldwin IV in 1182. He fought and was taken captive at Hattin. Released in 1188, he joined the siege of Acre in 1189 and fought throughout the Third Crusade. In 1193, he joined his brother on Cyprus, and after Guy’s death he succeeded him as lord. He negotiated with the pope and the Holy Roman Emperor to make Cyprus a Kingdom within the Holy Roman Empire, and in 1196 was granted the title of King of Cyprus. In late 1197, after the death of Henri de Champagne, he was selected by the High Court of Jerusalem as the fourth husband if Isabella of Jerusalem and in January 1198, he was crowned in Acre.
Between 1198 and his death in 1205, King Aimery either wrote (or commissioned the writing) of a book intended to capture all known laws of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, which had been lost when Jerusalem fell to Saladin in 1187. It is questionable whether the laws of Jerusalem had really been neatly written down, sealed and stored in the vaults of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, but this was what contemporaries claimed. Certainly, when Aimery set out to collect and transcribe the laws of his kingdom, he was working from oral records based on a consensus of what people remembered about the laws and customs of the Kingdom of Jerusalem during its first century of existence. Throughout the twelfth century, those laws had been evolving largely through practical necessity, but from this point onwards there was a clear point of reference: Aimery de Lusignans “Livre au roi” ― the Book of the King.
The “three wisest men this side of the sea”
After Aimery (who is revered more for compiling than analyzing or interpreting the law), came three men who in subsequent generations were revered as exceptionally wise. These were:
The Writers of Legal Wisdom
Lest you think this a paltry number of men to make my claim that most of the knightly class were well-educated and highly literate, the above are the leaders, but the following men are also recorded as being notable and respected jurists among an even wider class of jurors and counsellors including men of bourgeois origins: Renier and Arneis of Gibelet, Rostain Aimer, Reynald Forson, Paul of Nablus, Philip Lebel, William Raymond, Philip of Baisdoin, Raymond of Conches, Raymond and Nicholas of Antiaumes, and James Vidal. Riley-Smith argues that “the practice of law was a route to fame and status in the Latin East.” (Riley-Smith, p. 124).
I hope I have laid to rest any remaining doubts about whether the barons and knights of Jerusalem were illiterate and uneducated brutes….
Recommended Reading: Riley Smith, Jonathan, The Feudal Nobility and the Kingdom of Jerusalem 1174 – 1277, MacMillan, 1973.illan, 1973.