On November 27, 1095, Pope Urban II declared the First Crusade at the Council of Clermont. In so doing, he inaugurated a period of centuries of intense, though intermittent, warfare fought at the peripheries of Christendom. The Crusades exist in our historical memory as a period of near constant bloodshed and destruction, but out of the chaos of war came one of the most impressive collections of legal writing ever produced in the European Middle Ages: The Assizes of Jerusalem, or Les Assises et bons usages du royaume de Jerusalem.
On its face, The Assizes of Jerusalem is a collection of the laws that were established in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, that is, the Christian kingdom that the crusaders founded after they succeeded in capturing the Holy City. As the Christian armies of the Crusades conquered land in the eastern Mediterranean, they created states, semi-independent principalities, in order to protect and administer the territory they gained in war. The Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem stood at the heart of all of these. It existed from 1099 when Godfrey of Bouillon led the siege that wrested control of Jerusalem from the Fatimids until 1291 when Mamluk forces drove the crusaders out of their last remaining foothold in Acre. The city of Jerusalem fell to the Muslim general Saladin in 1187, but the Kingdom of Jerusalem retained its name and identity until the crusader state’s final destruction over a hundred years later. Even then, the reigning Lusignan family fled to Cyprus in 1291 where it continued to claim the Kingship of Jerusalem for many generations.
The Assizes of Jerusalem contains a number of works which were based primarily on French customary law, including among others Le Livre au Roi, Le Livre de Forme de Plait, as well as Le Livre des Assises de la Cour des Bourgeois, the last of these having been based in part on the Syro-Roman law that was the customary usage of the Levant dating from the Byzantine Christian period. The most important of the texts found in the collection is the Livre des Assises of John of Ibelin. Not only is John’s text the largest of the documents in The Assizes of Jerusalem, it is also the longest legal document of any sort to be produced in the middle ages; it’s a giant of nearly 160,000 words. It contains an historical prologue, in which John describes the semi-mythical founding narrative of the laws of the Kingdom of Jerusalem (namely, that Godfrey of Bouillon himself created the first code of law, the so-called Scripturae Sepulchri, immediately upon Jerusalem’s capture); a lengthy treatise on court procedure and pleading; and a dissertation on fiefs and vassalage. It is often remarked that John’s work contains the purest extant example of feudal law – the network of reciprocal arrangements, rights and responsibilities, uniting the interests of land-holding barons and kings – that characterized medieval society in Europe at the end of the eleventh century.
The document, however, is relatively late. John of Ibelin, who was count of Jaffa and Ascalon, and a member of an influential noble family that was associated with the regency of Cyprus, composed the work between the years 1264 and 1266. By then the expression of feudal relations found in the Livre des Assizes was already becoming anachronistic in the West as the kingdoms of Europe tended to abandon feudalism in favor of slightly more centralized states. The decentralization of authority that John’s treatise attests may reflect the political reality that the kingdom faced after the loss of Jerusalem as its capital city.
Regardless of its origins, when the crusaders withdrew to Cyprus in 1291, The Assizes of Jerusalem remained an important part of the law of the Kingdom of Cyprus. Its influence was so enduring that when the Republic of Venice annexed Cyprus in 1489, the government of Venice mandated an Italian translation of the document for official use. This translation was first printed by Aurelio Pincio in 1535 in Venice under the title L’Alte Corte, Le assise et bone vsanze del reame de Hyerusalem. According to Peter W. Edbury, the translation was based on a 1290 manuscript that belonged to one of the members of the Venetian translation committee, John de Nores. It was taken in the 1530s to the Marciana Library in Venice where it remains today. The French original exists in several divergent manuscript traditions. It first found its way to print in a 1690 edition of the Coutumes of Beauvaisis published by Thomas de la Thaumassiere, the text of which was based on a faulty copy of a manuscript held by the Vatican Library. Both of these extraordinary rare print editions offer an unparalleled glimpse into the social and internal political life of the crusader states at their twilight. They can be found in the Rare Book Collection of the Law Library of Congress.