The Crusaders and the Diffusion of Foods

Food writers, and some scholars as well, have for years popularized the idea that returning Crusaders were responsible for the appearance of this or that food in Christian Europe during the Middle Ages. One food historian, C. Anne Wilson, claimed that the Crusaders had “a considerable impact on the diet of western Europe.” Another writer, Reay Tannahill in her Food in History, claimed that the Crusaders imported cooking techniques from the East. Unfortunately, there is no evidence to support either of these claims.

The early Crusades were marked by a lack of food, and the constant preoccupation with raiding the surrounding land for grain and vegetables. The Crusaders were religious zealots, mercenaries mostly, off to fight the infidels, without any practical experience in farming or cooking, whose journeys to the Holy Land were military in nature, not alimentary. Their clothes were unsuitable for the climate, their diet was too heavy, they ignored personal hygiene, and readily succumbed to diseases such as cholera, plague, and leprosy. The First Crusade (1095-99) and the Second Crusade (1147-1149) ended in dismal failure. The Third Crusade failed (1189-92). The Fourth Crusade (1202-04) was a gigantic political folly with no redeeming value to Europeans. The Fifth Crusade, or Children’s Crusade (1212), was equally hopeless and pathetic. None of these Crusades were agricultural in nature. Once some Crusader kingdoms were established in the Holy Land, the most important of which was the second Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem (1187-1291), we find that their villages tended to raise subsistence, not cash, crops and although they were starting to learn more from the local Palestinian population, their mortality rate was so high that their continued existence was completely dependent on immigration from Europe.

Crusader agriculture barely existed. The lands they occupied were not naturally fertile, except for a few areas such as the coastal strip between the mountains and the sea in Lebanon.

Although the Crusader kingdoms could grow their own grain, if harvests were bad they imported grain from Muslim Syria and during the last days of the Crusader kingdoms all grain was imported. In Palestine the Crusaders had orchards and vegetable gardens, and the hills supported sheep, goats, and pigs, and it is possible that they exported olive oil to the West. We also know that rare Palestinian fruits such as the sweet lemon and pomegranates appeared on the tables of the wealthy in Italy. But none of these exports brought any appreciable revenue.

The most important of the food products going to the West was sugar that the Crusaders found already under cultivation when they conquered these territories. They learned from the Arabs and continued its cultivation, with the main center of the industry in Tyre in Lebanon. In fact, nearly all the sugar consumed in Europe during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries came from Outremer (the European name for the Crusader lands in the East). Some spices and herbs were also exported to the West, the most important being balm (Melissa officinalis), used in church services.

We know that the food the Crusaders ate over time began to resemble the local food but as for Crusader cooking, perhaps a lesson is to be learned in the fact that during the period of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem craftsmen and retailers worked in streets specializing in their trades and in Jerusalem the Crusader cooks worked in a street named Street of Bad Cooking. As Steven Runciman, the historian of the Crusades put it, apart from castle-building, the West learned nothing from the Crusades. All in all, it is clear that the Crusaders made no impact on western European cuisine for the cultural contacts were already occurring by virtue of the dominance of Italian merchants in the East and the presence of Islamic regimes in Spain and Sicily.