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This is an absolutely first-rate intro to the Crusades
on 10 May 2012
This is a popular introduction to the Crusades that strikes a perfect balance between academic rigor and the expectations of a lay audience. It offers solid narrative and some analysis, while avoiding excessive proofs and obscure controversies. Best of all, it is simply fun to read and never unacceptably heavy.
The Crusades began as a kind of idealistic call to arms. When you look at it, the entire enterprise looks insanely impossible: a bunch of aristocrats, knights and their support infantries decide to travel to nearly the end of the world, to dislodge the far more numerous Muslims from Christian holy sites (Jerusalem, etc.) Against all odds, the first Crusade essentially lives up to its ideals, conquering a huge swath of territories and establishing independent kingdoms and Duchies in the mid east (largely in the territories of modern Syria and Israel). It is simply amazing that, virtually without supply support and lacking coherent leadership, they charged into battle with little plans and won. Many said it was God's will.
In a way it was colonial, but the author is at pains to prove that it was their ideals that drove them. He demonstrates the changes in theology required, including "just war" by Christians, but also promises of salvation from sin to varying degrees and under more or less clarified obligations. The twists of logic and the hypocrisy of land-hungry princes, I was convinced, were outweighed by their religious purpose. After all, what they wanted to do was far too ambitious, though to be fair they lacked clear and practical knowledge about the areas they were attacking; besides, God and the talisman of the "true cross" supported them. Their faith offered them an inarguable rationale to plunge head first into hopeless battle for glory and to fulfill their vows. For a short time, they were triumphant. The second Crusade was a catastrophic bust: exhausted from the logistics of arriving in the mid east, it imploded upon arrival in spite of the presence of Eleanor of Aquitaine.
Of course, the muslim side had begun a decline that has proceeded more or less until the present day. They were not unified when the first crusade arrived and so were easy to divide and pick off kingdoms one by one. After being beaten, they did begin a long process of unification, eating away at Christian gains, but the process took more than a century. A series of great leaders did emerge, most notably Saladin, who strove to appear just and equitable, but had an instinct for amassing political power through military conquest. Nonetheless, the original dynamism of Islam was never regained. His duel with Richard Coeur de Lion is the centerpiece of the book: their portraits are wonderfully informative and psychologically deep. Both come off well, though Richard ultimately fails - Richard exerted extraordinary leadership, but it slipped from his grasp as over-zealous knights squandered the gains he had so painstakingly put together over a decade away from home and constantly worried about the machinations of his rivals back in Europe.
The fourth Crusade never gets beyond the shameful sack of Constantinople and the remaining ones blur together as desperate attempts to reclaim lost territories with the aid of enhanced theological clarity, i.e. what knightly vows consisted of and what precisely had to be done for salvation to be achieved. At this point, the Mamluks - Turkic slave warriors who took over Egypt and then the entire mid east - took over Saladin's empire and eventually triumphed over the Christian forces decisively. Europe then abandoned the enterprise without much thought and the Renaissance blossomed.
The entire process covered a span of approximately 200 years, a daunting tableau to paint. I often regret getting big fat history books because the degenerate into the driest of academic exercises. This one never does. Recommended with enthusiasm.