Crusading Criminality and the Architecture of Fear

ARCHITECTURE OF FEAR

Introduction

We associate the Crusades with castles. And that is not entirely unrealistic.

However, it was not just military architecture that had to adjust to a climate of fear. Western Europe in the period of the Crusades generally used domestic construction techniques that produced homes which were relatively insubstantial, even where there was ready access to stone as a building material – wattle and daub were easier to work with and far cheaper.

Kirchberger's House: Frankish stud work house in Rottenburg am Neckar

Kirchberger’s House: Frankish stud work house in Rottenburg am Neckar

Ordinary houses were so flimsy that burglars would often break in through the walls – it was easier than smashing the door down. Similarly, when a fire broke out in a Western medieval town, houses could be pulled down using just hooks and ropes to make a firebreak. More expensive materials, such as stone, were reserved for those with bigger budgets and more moveable property to protect – merchants, moneychangers and other middle-class residents.

Burglars and Buildings

Things were different in the crusader states, however. The need for security was greater, and wood was far less plentiful – stone was the building material of choice for almost all domestic residences.

For Europeans adjusting to a different climate, having thicker stone walls had advantages. They retained the relatively cooler temperatures of the Mediterranean evenings into the following day; and in winter they were also better at retaining the heat generated by fires or, more aromatically, by domestic animals.

But one of the main reasons for using stone seems to have been for protection. The security measures used in Frankish houses were hardly hi-tech, but they were the best that could be provided with the available materials – and, given the dangers from bandits, nomads and criminals (on top of the more obvious threat of enemy armies) this was hardly surprising.

Security and Fear
Stone houses of the medieval town

Stone houses of the medieval town

Less was sometimes more. Protection was partly achieved by not having staircases. The normal layout for a Frankish house was to have the main living (and certainly sleeping) areas on the upper floor. In most cases, access to these rooms would have been by a ladder which could be pulled up by the residents when they went to sleep at night. There may have been some examples of wooden staircases, but as wood is such a fragile material, these do not appear in the archaeological records. For larger properties, there were also stone vaults which gave more protection for goods in storage and enclosed courtyards which provided still greater defence against criminals or bandit attacks.

Smaller, more obvious, security measures were also used in the Crusaders’ houses. Locking mechanisms on doors were substantial, often supplemented by a solid beam bolt – these generally stretched down to fit into a slot made in a stone slab on the threshold. These wooden beams could be drawn quickly in the event of attack, or more routinely put in place at night. For those with more sophisticated tastes, we know from manuscript illustrations that there were metal keyholes, but we have few surviving examples of keys or locks.

Windows, the other main point of access to a residence, were protected by iron bars or shutters, though there were a few with glass – when James of Vitry referred to the opening of windows, for instance, he almost certainly meant ‘pulling back the shutters’. If occupants had sufficient warning of danger, windows might even be blocked up with stones, as seems to have been the case at Arsuf in 1265.

Criminality and danger left their sad imprint on the domestic architecture of the Holy Land.

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Crusader Criminals: The Knights Who Went Rogue in the Holy Land by Dr. Steve Tibble
Crusader Criminals: The Knights Who Went Rogue in the Holy Land by Dr. Steve Tibble

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SOURCES

  • Tibble, S. (2023). Crusader criminals: How knights went rogue. Yale University Press.

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