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23.11.02 Coureas, The Burgesses of Lusignan Cyprus 1192-1474

23.11.02 Coureas, The Burgesses of Lusignan Cyprus 1192-1474

Historians of the Crusades have paid increasing attention to the development of the burgess class. In the late eleventh century, European non-noble men and women headed East as participants in the First Crusade, the armies of which conquered Jerusalem in 1099. A significant number chose to settle, and in subsequent years, they became invested with legal and jurisdictional rights setting them above native Eastern Christians, Jews, and Muslims, but below the European knightly class. Contemporary charters, law-books, and narrative accounts shed light on the burgesses of the coastal cities and rural villages of the hinterlands, who brought with them western customs and traditions, established their own courts and legislation, and contributed to economic growth based largely on maritime trade. For almost two hundred years, they also helped shape the political affairs of the Crusader States. And, today, irrespective of the ever-contentious issue of crusading, there is no denying the remarkable legacy of European transmigration in the Middle Ages, the unprecedented armed-pilgrimage that led to settlement in the East, a Latin Christian society forged in the crucible of war and religious difference.

Beginning in the late twelfth century, the kings of Jerusalem also claimed suzerainty over Cyprus, which created a vital bridge between burgess legislation and jurisdiction on the mainland and the island. As is shown in Nicholas Coureas’s The Burgesses of Lusignan Cyprus, 1192-1474 (2020), a study comprising eight diachronically arranged chapters dealing with the class of burgesses from the twelfth to the fifteenth century, the law-books of the kingdom of Jerusalem were well known to the lawmakers and law practitioners of Cyprus. One of these law-books, the Livre des Assises des Bourgeois, was compiled in mid-thirteenth century Acre, subsequently deposited in the royal Burgess Court of Nicosia, translated into Greek in the fourteenth century, and still in use even after annexation of the island by the Venetians in 1489. Besides legal sources, a study of burgesses in Cyprus benefits, invariably, from the chronicles of George Boustronios--written in colloquial Cypriot Greek, in the late fifteenth century--and Florio Bustron, written in Italian in the sixteenth century. Furthermore, the Cartulary of the Cathedral of the Holy Wisdom of Nicosia is the sole surviving Latin ecclesiastical cartulary from Cyprus, and the Processus Cypricus contains the testimonies of burgesses at the trial of the Templars on the island in 1310-1311. However, of paramount importance for Coureas are the richly informative collections of Genoese and Venetian notarial deeds of Famagusta, legal documents in which notaries recorded the prescribed formalities of commercial agreements and legal procedures involving burgesses. These were private contracts, their findings probative and admissible in the courts of burgesses. The wide-ranging documents are invaluable for a study of burgess creditors and debtors, testamentary disposition, the rights of women and children, inheritance, disputes and arbitration. Coureas’s analysis of the deeds is painstakingly thorough and informing of legislation in Famagusta, which was captured by the Genoese in 1373, and to a lesser extent the royal city of Nicosia.

Cyprus was a place of refuge for burgesses who migrated from the crusader mainland after the island had been sold by King Richard I to Guy de Lusignan in 1192. According to Coureas, in the wake of devastating defeat for the crusader armies at the hands of Saladin in 1187, burgesses helped legitimise Guy de Lusignan’s rule. But why was this class so important to the formation of the Latin kingdom of Cyprus? There is fleeting reference in the chronicle of the fifteenth-century Cypriot historian Leontios Makhairas to “rich burgesses” of Nicosia, who served the king as envoys and soldiers. It is clear to see in the notarial deeds, however, the commercial acumen of burgess individuals. These legally-binding albeit private agreements in civil matters settled in front of witnesses were drawn up in Famagusta by the notaries Lamberto di Sambuceto and Giovani da Rocha (fl. 1296-1310), and Antonio Folieta (fl. 1442-1458). The legal documents, which Coureas relies on heavily and handles skilfully, attest to burgess investment in shipping and, correspondingly, involvement in overseas trade in Venice, France, Lesser Armenia, and Syria. Political astuteness may also be gleaned from the sources, including the influence burgesses wielded under the reign of King Henry II (1285-1324), and in Nicosia, paying into the coffers of King Peter I (1358-1369), which was an indication of their collective wealth. In chapter 2, Coureas further details the lives of prominent burgesses; for example, Andreas Busatus, who was a witness at the trial of the Templars in Nicosia. John Moustry, moreover, an admiral, was a loyal supporter of King Peter I, and Renier of Jubail, a burgess of the kingdom of Jerusalem, was an ally of Aimery de Lusignan, first king of Cyprus. Renier negotiated Aimery’s coronation with the German Emperor Henry IV, the suzerain of Cyprus, was rewarded with a knighthood, and died a wealthy man with various holdings between Larnaca and Famagusta.

Coureas demonstrates the resourcefulness and resilience of burgesses on the island, which had an appreciable effect on commerce and trade, even in the face of Mamluk threats along the Syrian coast. In this respect, the contribution made by burgesses to the Cypriot economy, certainly in Famagusta, was indispensable. However, what cannot be ignored, as Coureas knows well, is that in the Crusader States, the burgess class was exclusively made up of Latin Christians, whether of European descent or natives. Notable, therefore, is Coureas’s chief claim that admission into the burgess class in Cyprus was not static, thus allowing for the emergence of non-Latin Christian members in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. He sets out to prove this point. An Azariel Iornus, for example, was a Jewish moneylender resident in Famagusta, and described as a burgess in a document of 1439. He was also an arbitrator acting on behalf of the Genoese Commune in disputes involving other Jews. Further examples are furnished of Jews and Greeks. Seemingly, therefore, fewer rules governing burgess status did away with the legal principle--first established in the kingdom of Jerusalem--that only Latin Christians were permitted entry to this class. But to what extent is this development supported by the evidence? The rules embedded in mainland legislation discriminated against indigenous people on grounds of religion and emphasised the legal rights of burgesses above all non-Latin Christians. How and when, therefore, were the rules loosened in Cyprus? Was this change in law demonstrative of greater inclusivity? Did “burgess” come to denote not legal status, but wealth, membership of a commercial order, or city dweller? For all the detailed analysis of legal documents, these questions are unanswered. If, as seems to have been the case, burgesses came to accept among their ranks non-Christians and Eastern, predominantly Greek Orthodox Christians, in theory, the former and the latter would have been permitted to possess burgess property, and presumably, to bring their cases in the Cour des Bourgeois, the Court of Burgesses. The broader view of legislation, jurisdiction, and proprietorship over the course of Lusignan rule in Cyprus, and specifically, Genoese Famagusta, based on a reading of the sources, is imperative to establish how the class of burgesses, which as claimed by Coureas was a “social and legal entity” defined by greater religious diversity, was distinct from the class of knights and serfs. And, besides evidence of burgess society in the cities, what of rural life? We know that burgess moneylenders, on account of land pledged by debtors as security against a loan, held casalia, whole villages, as vifgage. Widening the scope of enquiry to examine urban and rural habitation may help determine what constituted burgess property, the borgesie, which was bought, sold, bequeathed, or pledged, and to what courts it was subject.

Unsurprisingly, Coureas’s book leans heavily towards Genoese Famagusta, bearing in mind the wealth of notarial records available. Nevertheless, when he turns his attention to city governance, generally, he does raise important questions about policing in the fourteenth century, and interestingly, the adoption of Arab practices, which as shown by Jonathan Riley-Smith, was common in crusader cities such as Acre. Of particular note, Coureas points out, was the mahtesep (Arabic, muhtasib), who was subordinate to the viscount, the head of the Court of Burgesses, and collector of market taxes. The name of this official is indicative of Arab derivation, and like his Muslim counterpart, the Cypriot mahtesep was an inspector and moral arbitrator, accompanying the viscount as night watchman throughout the neighbourhoods of Nicosia, ensuring that goods in the shops were priced fairly, and arresting those accused of indecency. This type of market supervision and the regulation of commercial and moral behaviour suggests, in broader terms, what a study of burgess society can reveal of Christian-Muslim encounter in the eastern Mediterranean. Arguably, it is a topic deserving of wide-ranging discussion, though Coureas does refer to burgess families originating from Beirut and Sidon, trading freely between Cyprus and the mainland, and working as translators for the Commune of Genoa in Famagusta in its dealings with the Mamluks in Syria and Egypt. Moreover, in the fourteenth century, we find evidence of burgesses importing wheat into Lesser Armenia, which at the time was under increasing threat from Mamluk raids. However, perhaps most intriguing is Coureas’s assertion that in those notarial deeds recording shipping ventures, where destination is not specified, this was an attempt to obviate papal sanctions against trade of materiel with Muslim countries following Mamluk conquest of Acre and Tyre in 1291.

But for all the resoluteness and industry of the burgesses, Coureas’s book is ultimately about their decline. This is what can be pieced together from his analysis of notarial deeds in chapter 5: the impoverishment of Famagusta under the Genoese on account of poor administration, the invasion of the island by the Mamluks in 1426, and payment of tribute, and the increasing Ottoman threat. As Coureas states, “in a wider context, the decline of Genoese Famagusta mirrors the decline of Genoese trade in the eastern Mediterranean from the second half of the fifteenth century” (197). The conflict, moreover, between Hospitaller Rhodes and Mamluk Egypt had a deleterious impact on trade in Cyprus, while decline was brought on by reparations paid by King James I to the Genoese, funded by taxation imposed on nobles in 1385. Again, Coureas’s examination of the sources is meticulous, underscoring the continuing financial services provided the Genoese Commune in Famagusta by burgess moneylenders to secure city defences. That said, burgesses were caught in a double bind, between dealing with the Genoese Commune as creditors, while risking the ire of a disgruntled debtor, and, if compelled to pay towards defences, having to carry a heavy financial burden like other taxpayers.

In the final assessment, Coureas’s work is of impressive scope, detailing the involvement of burgesses in commercial investment and moneylending, as well as their role as executors, arbitrators, and guarantors (chapter 4), and participation as witnesses in the judicial inquests of the Genoese in Famagusta in the fifteenth century (chapters 5 and 7). Examination of the sources points toward the commercial and legal ties that bound Cyprus and the mainland, and the complex system of burgess jurisdiction on the island. And scattered throughout the book, we glimpse life in Famagusta: Latin Christians, Greeks and Italians mixing with Armenian and Syrian migrant workers, court-appointed officials policing the streets and marketplaces, mercenaries from Salonica in the pay of the Genoese Commune, residents complaining of run-down housing, prostitution, and the odious smells of unlicensed slaughterhouses. Coureas has produced a most useful book for a readership interested in medieval Cyprus, and any criticism I may have of his methodology should not detract from the obvious value of the analysis. However, as far as burgesses are concerned, the book does not present a consistent and unified argument establishing how status was defined, and whether this, as in the kingdom of Jerusalem, was based on religion, the court to which a man or woman was subject, and the property in his or her possession. A detailed discussion of thedevelopment of the Court of Burgesses on the island would have gone some way to informing our understanding of burgess status, while acknowledging distinctions between royal and Genoese jurisdiction. Additionally, the legally definedborgesie deserves greater attention, the alienability of a house, vineyard or even whole village, and the courts to which these properties were subject. The concluding remarks are also somewhat contradictory; Coureas notes that members of the indigenous Church of Cyprus, accepted papal primacy in 1260, which “made them eligible” (334) as Greek-rite Catholics to become burgesses. However, up to this point in the book, the argument rejects religious criterion for inclusion. At any rate, Coureas further states, “non-Latin burgesses, especially the Greeks and the Armenians, are underrepresented in the extant sources for the history of Lusignan Cyprus but were undoubtedly present” (334). Certainly, burgess status developed over time in the East, and specifically on the island in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, but how this came about in the context of legislation, jurisdiction and property possession is of relevance.