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The Emergence of a Francophone Culture in the East: an Overview

by Nicholas Paul
Department of History, Fordham University

The Francophone culture of the medieval eastern Mediterranean comes most vividly to life after the year 1200, when many of the vernacular historiographical, religious, and legal texts indexed here were first written. It was in the thirteenth century, especially during the age of King Louis IX of France, that the political relationship between France and the Holy Land was most pronounced. Louis IX served as protector and de facto ruler of the crusader kingdom during his long sojourn in the East (1250-1254), following the failure of his first crusade expedition in Egypt in 1250. The groundwork for the development of both a French literary culture and identity had, however, been laid a century earlier, in the first decades after the establishment of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem by the armies of the First Crusade.

Despite the difficulties imposed by the varieties of medieval naming practices and the uneven survival of source material from the East, it is fairly easy to establish that the majority of territories conquered by the armies of the First Crusade were dominated by lords who spoke a Francophone romance, whether they were from western Francia, Normandy, Languedoc, Norman southern Italy, or even the Franco-Germanic linguistic borderlands of Lotharingia.[1] The German pilgrim John of Würzburg, who visited the East in 1170, admitted as much, writing that

Despite the fact that duke Godfrey [of Bouillon] and after him his brother Baldwin, who was constituted king in Jerusalem… were from our (ie German or German-speaking) regions, because few of our people (nostratum) remained with them and the others, and such a great number hastened with ardent desire to return to their native land, all of the cities were occupied by other nations: by those Franks [or possibly “French” (Francis)], Lotharingians, Normans, Provencals, Auvergnats, Italians, Spanish and Burgundians who had come together with them on the same expedition. Thus, even now, no part of the smallest street in the city (i.e. Jerusalem) is given over to the Germans (alemannis).[2]

John, who was obviously very proud of what he considered the “German” contribution to the First Crusade, noted bitterly that the memory of the First Crusade had been appropriated in the East by the Franci, by which he must have meant those who were “French” or “French-speaking.” John complained that the tomb which he believed belonged to a famous German crusader, the ministerialis of Fulda known as Wicher of Swabia, was left forgotten in a corner outside of the church of the Holy Sepulcher, and the epitaph it had once borne was effaced and replaced the epitaph of “some knight from France” (cuiusdem militis de Francia.)[3] Riled by even more verses celebrating the Franci which were displayed on the outside of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Wicher contented himself with his own verses, claiming, “Not French but Franconians were the mightier with the sword,” and “Guntram, Witger, and duke Godfrey were Franks, not French.”

The First Crusade was the origin story for the crusader states in the Levant and a fundamental facet of their political and cultural identity. It is telling that in 1170, John observed that this story was exclusively associated with those he struggled to describe with terms like Franci or de Francia. For the crusading principalities of the East, survival in the first decades of their existence depended on strong contacts with the western provinces from whence their lords had come. In the first decades of the twelfth century, a period of fragility and uncertainty for the crusader states, the principalities of Antioch and Tripoli, both of which were centered around major Mediterranean port cities, maintained political contact with Norman southern Italy, Aquitaine, and Provence. The princes of Antioch and Tripoli also secured marriage alliances with the Capetian dynasty of France, and familial ties were only further strengthened after the marriage of King Louis VII (r. 1137-1180) to Eleanor Aquitaine, whose uncle Raymond of Poitiers was Prince of Antioch (r. 1136-1149). The intimacy of these family relationships was made plain during the Second Crusade, when both Louis and Eleanor visited Antioch.[4] Even after the marriage between Eleanor and Louis was annulled in 1152, appeals to a special relationship between France and Antioch were still being made, as they were in the diplomatic letters carried to the West by Frederick, archbishop of Tyre, in 1169.[5]
It is to the court of Eleanor’s uncle Raymond that twelfth-century sources ascribe the first vernacular literary production in the Holy Land. The chronicler William of Tyre described him as a “cultivator of letters, although not learned himself.” Most importantly, verses within Chétifs, an epic tale which came to be incorporated within the Old French Crusade Cycle, name Raymond as the patron of the work. While it seems clear that in the surviving cyclical versions of Chétifs, we do not have the work in its original, possibly Antiochene, form, Linda Paterson has argued that

What we can conclude from the Chétifs then, is that Antioch under the rule of Raymond of Poitiers was a place where literature had the potential to thrive… it also seems to have been a place where Occitan and Norman elements continued to interact in epic production. (Paterson, “Occitan Literature,” p. 89)

Questions about whether the “thriving” literary milieu at Antioch continued under Raymond’s successors, and about the possible existence of other such courts in the Levant must, in the current state of research, remain open.
Returning to the evidence of the pilgrim John of Wurtzburg, there can be little doubt that by the second half of the twelfth century, the ruling classes of the Latin East shared a political and cultural closeness with the Francophone principalities of continental Europe which were, at the same time, assuming a more unified identity of their own under the aegis of an ascendant Capetian monarchy. It was probably for this reason that those who visited the East as pilgrims and crusaders from other parts of the West felt somewhat marginalized by such a powerful “French” identity in the crusader states. At the time of the Third Crusade, English, German, and Spanish crusaders all established their own “national” military orders in the East (St. Thomas, St. Mary, and Mountjoy, respectively) to assist with the medical care, protection, and burial of their pilgrims in the Holy Land. Although the two central military orders in the East, the Temple and the Hospital, were immensely popular with the continental Francophone aristocracy, no new “French” military order or hospital was ever established in the Latin East. The simplest explanation for this is that theirs was already the dominant culture in the Holy Land. On pilgrimage or crusade, continental French speakers would feel themselves in less alien surroundings that their fellow crusaders from elsewhere and closer to the existing institutions in the East. The Latin Kingdom was French enough already.

  1. The full prosopographical identification of those who ruled and settled the ports, cities, and lands conquered by crusaders is only just beginning, spearheaded by the work of Alan V. Murray. This work will no doubt be greatly aided by recent developments in archaeology, forensic science and paleopathology, but current efforts based mainly on onomastic evidence will always confront the difficulties imposed by the varieties of medieval naming practices and the uneven survival of source material from the East.
  2. Descriptiones terrae sanctae ex saeculo viii, ix, xii, et xv, ed. Titus Tobler (Leipzig, 1874), p. 155.
  3. Descriptiones terrae sanctae, p. 154. Albert of Aachen claimed that Wicher was buried in Jaffa, where he died. Albert of Aachen, Historie Ierosolimitana: history of the Journey to Jerusalem, ed. and tr. Susan Edginton (Oxford, 2007), pp. 584-5.
  4. Jonathan Phillips, The Second Crusade: Extending the Frontiers of Christendom (New Haven, 2007), pp. 207-212. Phillips also discusses the allegations that while the queen was in Antioch, Eleanor and her uncle Raymond had a sexual liaison.
  5. Jonathan Phillips, Defenders of the Holy Land: The Latin East and the West: 1119-1187 (Oxford, 1996), p. 181


Alan V. Murray, The Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem: A Dynastic History 1099-1125, (Oxford, 2000).

___________, “National Identity, Language, and Conflict in the Crusades to the Holy Land: 1096-1192,” in The Crusades and the Near East, ed. Conor Kostick (London and New York, 2011).

__________, “Norman Settlement in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, 1099-1131,” Archivio Normanno-Svevo 1 for 2008 (2009), 61-85.

__________, “The Prosopography and Onomastics of the Franks in the Kingdom of Jerusalem, 1099-1187,” in Onomastique et parenté dans l'Occident médiéval, ed. K. S. B. Keats-Rohan and Christian Settipani (Oxford, 2000), pp. 283-94.

France and the Holy Land: Frankish Culture at the End of the Crusades, ed. Daniel H. Weiss and Lisa J. Mahoney (Baltimore, 2004).

Linda M. Paterson, “Occitan Literature and the Holy Land,” in The World of Eleanor of Aquitaine: Literature and Society in Southern France between the Eleventh and Thirteenth Centuries, ed. Marcus Bull and Catherine Léglu (Woodbridge, 2005), pp. 83-100.

Jonathan Phillips, Defenders of the Holy Land: The Latin East and the West: 1119-1187 (Oxford, 1996)

Jonathan Riley-Smith, “The Politics of War: France and the Holy Land,” in The Book of Kings. Art, War, and the Morgan Library’s Medieval Picture Bible, ed William Noel and Daniel Weiss, (London, 2002), pp 70-81.