Italy and the Crusades

Ursula Cliff, Dickson College, 2010

This essay is a response to the self-devised focus question: "How did participation in the Crusades aid in the economic growth of Italy?" It was submitted as part of the High Middle Ages unit at Dickson College, Semester 2, 2010.

‘A mighty flame followeth a tiny spark’ (Dante, ‘Paradise,’ The Divine Comedy, c.1300-21)

Dante Alighieri could have been describing the economic flourishing of the Italian states of the Middle Ages. By the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, Italy had firmly established itself as one of the great economic and commercial powers of medieval Europe. Much of this is attributable to the Christian Crusades of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Participation in the Crusades, either through battle on the side of the Franks, transportation of essential supplies as well as Crusaders and pilgrims to the Holy Land, or through settlement in the Levant, provided the ‘spark’ for Italy’s economic growth and development. It enabled the rise to dominance of the maritime republics in trade between east and west, and even further afield. Participation also led to growth in the urban population of Italy, due to the increased demand for western goods, the prominence of Italy as a trading centre for western Europe, and the rise of the merchant class. As well as international growth, participation in the crusades allowed for the maritime republics of Italy to spread and establish considerable colonies internationally, in strategic trading areas. Increased contact with the East also further aided in Italy’s rise in the commercial and banking areas. Although Italy at the time of the Crusades was not one united nation, but rather a series of republics and states, the economic impact of the Crusades affected the majority of the prominent regions of the country, and had spreading ramifications on further areas of the land and people.

A prominent way in which participation in the Crusades aided in Italy’s economic growth was their rise to dominance in trade between East and West. This change is primarily due to the extensive trading concessions gained by the maritime republics of Genoa, Venice, Pisa, and to a degree, Amalfi. The concessions were granted as reward or repayment for the considerable aid Italy provided to the Franks and Latins throughout the Crusades, by way of transportation, participation in several major engagements and naval battles, and manpower (Kreuger 1964:60). With these concessions, the maritime republics could develop the privileges they had already been granted the Byzantines, Greeks and Arabs living in the east prior to the Crusades (Ibid.). Combined, these privileges granted the maritime republics both residential and commercial quarters in the majority of the eastern trading ports; exemption from some customs fees; as well as the right to profit from any rentals, leases, court fines and harbour dues they wished to impose on their goods and in their areas (Heer 1961:55). The Christian zeal of the Crusaders also helped the Italian traders to gain prevalence over the traditional traders of the area – the Greeks, Syrian and Jews – who were religiously and economically persecuted (Runciman1954:358). With these benefits, the Italian quarters became the ‘centres of exchange for Oriental and European goods and markets for the western imports’ (Krueger 1964: 61), and by 1180, there were an estimated 60,000 Italians in Constantinople (Thompson 1928:438). As one historian notes: ‘The great economic and political power of Italian finance would have been impossible without overseas trade’ (Heer 1961: 55). The dominance over trade in the East spread to the west, where, as the primary importers of eastern goods, the Italians enjoyed a lucrative profit. (Ibid.)

A further economic benefit which participation in the Crusades brought Italy was the dramatic growth of its urban areas. An estimate shows urban populations of Italy between 1000 CE and 1340 CE doubling in size, from five million to ten million (Halsall 1996). The causes of the growth are threefold. An increasing import trade of ‘oriental’ goods to the west necessitated a corresponding export trade (Bautier 1971:107). This led to an increase in manufacturing, which further contributed to an increase in town populations, where the industries were growing. One of the most prolific of these was in textiles, which ‘acquired international importance in the twelfth century’ (Ibid.). The increase in trade particularly led to an increase in population for the major trading cities and ports, as well as towns along the trading route (Thompson 1928:451). One of the largest areas of growth was in the north: ‘the crusades did not give birth to the Lombard cities, but they enormously stimulated their development’ (Ibid.:439). Towns like Milan profited because of their position on the trading route between the trading port of Venice and Southern France, the mercantile doorway to much of western Europe. Some of these inland cities grew wealthy acting as ‘middlemen’, profiting from raising the price of goods coming between the trading ports and the merchant fairs (Ibid:437). A further cause of urban population growth attributable to the Crusades was the rise of the merchant class:

‘... [the merchants], having made large fortunes in foreign trade, one after another promptly reinvested a good proportion of their profits in town houses, farms, and often also in manors and noble estates’ (Bautier 1971:107).

The increase in town population could only have been supported due to the increase in wealth of the cities, which was brought about by the rise of industry and commerce (Thompson 1928:438). Much of the increased population was comprised of former serfs, who had been attracted to the town because increased trade facilitated growth in employment (Ibid:441).

The increase of international Italian colonies can also be attributed to Italy’s participation in the Crusades. Before the Crusades, very small settlements, primarily comprised of merchants, had existed in the eastern Mediterranean, and in ‘Romania’ (parts of eastern Europe) (Edbury 1995:309). However, by the close of the Crusades, the Italian states had settled all throughout the Mediterranean, and the eastern Roman Empire, as well as in parts of western Europe, in what one historian calls: ‘the earliest European colonial capitalism’ (Heer 1961: 55). Genoa established trading relations and settled on the coast of the Black Sea, and from there, traded with Russia and Asia (Edbury 1995:309). After their diversion of the fourth crusade, the Venetians used the territory gained to establish further colonies in the Mediterranean:

‘[Venice] achieved direct sovereignty over Crete and the twin ports of Coron and Modon in the south of the Peloponnese, and at the same time encouraged individual members of the Venetian patrician members to take control of many of the smaller Aegean islands for themselves’ (Ibid.:311).

These colonies considerably contributed to Italy’s wealth. Settling in areas with considerable numbers and economic power gave them control over the exports of that region. One prominent example is Italy’s monopolisation of the glass and silk industries, which it gained through settlements in the Levant (Heer 1961:55). The Italians also gained from the manufacturing industries of the areas, by ‘putting their subjects, the majority of them non-Christians, to forced labour in their industrial enterprises’ (Ibid.). Settling in the Mediterranean also helped to ensure the continuing safety and prosperity of trade with the east for the Italians (Edbury 1995:311). Italy also established considerable colonies in parts of western Europe, particularly in the south of France, where in the thirteenth century Italian merchants effectively controlled the import and export trade of France (Heer 1961:58). Without established Christian colonies, as a result of the crusaders’ conquests and the dominance in trade afforded to the Italians by concessions on the part of the Latins and Franks, such colonies, and the economic benefits they afforded, may not have been possible in such abundance or in such a short time span.

Participation in the Crusades also increased the prominence of Italy within the commercial and financial system of medieval Europe. Increased contact and travel with the east, caused by the Crusades, led to a more complex interaction of foreign currencies. With increased contact and travel between the east and west by Crusaders, pilgrims, and merchants, it was impractical to transport large sacks of gold and silver coinage, and the unequal exchange rates of foreign currency (in 1098, one Crusader coin was equal to 180 Byzantine coins) also led to confusion and discontent (Bautier 1971:146). To counteract this problem, and in an attempt to unify and equalise the exchange rate in the trade markets, Venice (in 1284) and Florence (in 1252) each struck gold coins, which ‘formed an internationally accepted standard of value comparable to the dollar of our own time’ (Heer 1961:55). This strongly contributed to their importance within Europe’s financial system. The increase in trade throughout the west and east aided by the Crusades also initiated an increase in the banking area, as the growth of the merchant class necessitated an increase in money-changers and lenders (Bautier 1971:146). A new system of banking was initiated by the military religious order in the East, the Knights Templars, and enthusiastically fostered and developed by the Italians (Alchin n.d.). The system allowed for letters of credit to be used in lieu of physical coinage, allowed for the loan of money in advance, and enabled transferral of money between clients (Bautier 1971:146). The Jews, who had traditionally been the prominent force within the banking community, were being heavily persecuted, and in some cases, even expelled by Christian countries (perhaps, in part spurred by the religious fanaticism of the Crusaders), allowing the Italians to displace them (Ibid.:147). Due to these early forms of banking, ‘Florence, Siena and Genoa [became] the leading financial powers of the day’ (Heer 1961:55). Their new prominence in banking led to some Italian cities and families developing ‘companies’, which were ‘one of the motive forces behind big business in the thirteenth century’ (Bautier 1971:146), and greatly increased the wealth of individual men and towns, as well as the wealth of Italy as a whole.

Without active participation in the Crusades, and the ‘spark’ it provided to incite the ‘fire’ of Italy’s growth, it is unlikely Italy would have been able to so firmly establish itself as such a major economic power within medieval Europe, with such strength and in such a short space of time. Cooperation in the Crusades: enabled Italy to rise to power as the dominant traders within Europe; aided in the large increase in urban population; caused Italian colonies to spread throughout the Mediterranean and even into Asia and western Europe; and facilitated Italy’s rise in the commercial and banking sector. Each of these effects greatly contributed to Italy’s economic power, the wealth of which would eventually enable the voyages of discovery of the Italians in later centuries, and the blossoming of intellectual and artistic growth, the Renaissance – perhaps neither of which would have been possible without Pope Urban’s first call to arms in the cause of Christianity in 1096.


Literary Sources

Alighieri, Dante c.1300-21 (translated by Sisson, C.H. 1980), ‘Paradise’, The Divine Comedy, Pan Books, London.
Dante’s most famous work, written in Italy in the early 14th century.

Bautier, Robert-Henri (translated from French by Karolyi, Heather) 1971, The Economic Development of Medieval Europe, Thames and Hudson, London.
This text provides a helpful account of the economic rise of Italy, goes into detail on each of the major cites and states, and includes relevant statistics of populations, accounts of goods, etc.

Edbury, Peter ‘The Latin East, 1291-1669’ published in Riley-Smith, Jonathan 1995, The Oxford Illustrated History of the Crusades, Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Edbury offers a comprehensive account of the Crusader East, and includes details of the Italian colonies. The text also offers pictures and archaeological evidence, which add interest.

Heer, Freidrich 1961 (translated from German by Sondheimer, Janet 1962), The Medieval World: Europe 1100-1350, George Weidenfeld and Nicholson Ltd, Britain.
This source provides an information-dense and broad account of the urban life and economy of Medieval Europe, and includes helpful details on the economy of Italy, and the effect of the Crusades.

Hollister, C. Warren and Bennett, Judith M. 2001, Medieval Europe: a short history (9th edn.), McGraw-Hill Higher Education, New York.
Hollister and Bennett offer a broad account of life in the middle ages, and their account of the economic situation in Europe provides a strong basis for further research.

Krueger, Hilmar C. ‘The Crusades and European Expansion’, published in The Crusades: Motives and Achievements, Brundage, James A. (ed.) 1964, D. C. Heath and Company, Boston.
Krueger’s essay gives an interesting and detailed perspective of the European colonisation, including Italy’s, which took place during and after the Crusades.

Runciman, Steven 1954, A History of the Crusades (Vol. III): The Kingdom of Acre, The University Press, Cambridge
Runciman provides an account of the Crusader east, and offers a comprehensive account of the trading activity of the Italian settlements. For the purpose of this essay, it was brief and narrow.

Thompson, James Westfall 1966 (2nd edn.), Economic and Social History of the Middle Ages (300 – 1300) (Vol. I), Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., New York.
This text provided a detailed and comprehensive account of the Italian economy, and the changes it underwent throughout the Crusades.

Electronic Sources

Alchin, L.K. (n.d.), 'Knights Templars – Banking', accessed 16 September 2010, at <>
Alchin offers an easily comprehensible account of the history and activities of the Knight’s Templars. Brief, but informative.

Halsall, Paul 1996, 'Medieval Sourcebook: Tables on Population in Medieval Europe', accessed 11 November 2010, at <>
This source offers very useful statistical information, which is difficult to find elsewhere.

(author not provided), (date not provided), 'Crusades Timeline', accessed 11 November 2010, at <>
This website provides a short and simple account of the Crusades, including dates and important events. Good for quick reference.