The Rule of Guy de Lusignan
Social Conditions
Guy de Lusignan

Guy de Lusignan

The conditions of Cyprus on the arrival of Guy de Lusignan was pitiable, for the tyranny of Isaac Commenus followed by the massacre of Nicosia by the Templars had driven the better-class inhabitants from the island. The first care of Guy was to make his new possession secure by the establishment in the island of a feudal society. Those of his followers who had lost their estates in Palestine were compensated by grants of land in Cyprus. The public domains, largely increased by the confiscations of Isaac and by the flight of landholders, were employed to provide estates for the knights and barons of the Lusignan forces, who in return would give military service to their lord.

But although obliged to provide for the needs of his own adherents, Guy was anxious to gain the sympathy of the native inhabitants of the island, and did his best to remedy the depopulation from which Cyprus had suffered. With his object he proclaimed in the adjoining countries that their estates would be restored to those Cypriots who returned to claim them within a fixed period, and he also invited settlers from Syria and surrounding districts.

The nobility and the landed class of the new kingdom consisted of 300 nobles and knights and 200 squires, to whom Guy granted estates of land, including the Cypriot peasants who lived upon them. After these, came the burgesses, composed chiefly of the traders and artisans of the town, men who had come from Europe in the track of the crusades to make their living by industry and trade. The native population consisted of five classes:

(a) The Parici, the largest class and the lowest grade in the social scale, were regarded almost as slaves by the owners of the estates on which they lived. They were not allowed to leave the land which they cultivated, and had to give a third of their produce to their feudal lord as well as personal service. They were liable to be sold or exchanged and could be awarded any punishment, except death, at the wish of their lord.

(b) The Perpiriarii were few in number and like the Parici were tied to the land, but they had purchased the personal freedom of themselves and their children and in lieu of service had to make an annual payment of 15 bezants to their feudal lord.

(c) The Lefteri were Parici who had been emancipated either on payment or by the good will of their lord. They had to pay a proportion of their produce of their land. The children born after emancipation were free, but if they married women of the Parici class, the children were classed as Parici.

(d) The Albanians were the descendants of the soldiers who had been brought from Albania to Cyprus for the defence of the island. They had settled in Cyprus and intermarried with the Cypriots. Their descendants still call themselves Albanians, drew pay, and carried arms, though in reality they had become peasants rather than soldiers. They were no longer of any military value, and were, under the Lusignans, deprived of their pay and military status.

(e) The White Venetians were the descendants of the soldiers whom Vital Michaele, the Doge of Venice, led on a crusade to the Holy Land in 1123 and who afterwards settled in Cyprus. They paid a small sum annually to the lord of the estate on whose land they had settled, and had the legal right of being tried by a Venetian nobleman who resided at Nicosia with the title of Consul.

Such being the estates of the realm, it is clear that the powerful classes were all Franks. The mass of the peasantry were tied to the soil, which they had cultivated for centuries past. The returning Cypriots could only regain their ancient rights and privileges by the consent of the governing race. Although the native Cypriots grew while the foreigners ultimately dwindled and perished, all political power centred in the governing race.

The constitution of Cyprus was modelled on that of the kingdom of Jerusalem and was regulated by the same code, called the Assizes of Jerusalem, though this code had not yet been reduced to writing. It was a limited monarchy, and the royal powers were restricted to the exercise of military authority. Guy himself was never crowned king of Cyprus, and, though he had held the crown of Jerusalem, his title was lord of Cyprus.

Public matters were administered by two courts, called the High Court and the court of Burgesses. The High Court, presided over by the king and composed of the nobility the holders of fiefs and the chief civil ministers of the kingdom, dealt with all the important affairs of state. Without its consent no laws or customs, as they were called, could be passed. The Lower Court, or the Court of Burgesses, took charge, as its name implies, of all matters affecting the burgesses, and was under the presidency of an official called the viscount. It was an organisation of tribunals of justice and local government, and had no legislative powers.

The Assizes of Jerusalem, although forming the common law of the kingdom of Cyprus, as far as the Franks were concerned, cannot be regarded as an authoritative code for the whole population. The Cypriots had laws and customs of their own, which they were allowed to retain in so far as they were not opposed to the feudal law. Within the feudal system custom was more dominant than law, and the lords of great fiefs did not accept even the rules of the High Court as binding unless they had themselves consented to them.

  • From: Newman, P., (1940), "A Short History of Cyprus", Longmans, Green & Co., London.

Chronological History