The Crusades

By Thomas Asbridge

If you’re going to write the “authoritative history” of anything it’s good a good idea to start by clearly defining your subject. This may seem obvious in the case of the Crusades, which are usually understood as the 200 years the West spent serially invading and ruling over parts of the Holy Land, but things do get blurry around the edges. “Crusading” in the sense of taking part in a holy war called by the Pope, complete with the offer of some degree of remission of and absolution from sins, actually had a much wider temporal and geographical ambit. What about the suppression of the Albigensians? The Spanish Reconquista? The expansion of Christian Europe into the Baltic states? Various attempts made to check the advance of the Ottomans? All of these were considered by their participants to be a form of crusade, and many historians would include them today. In another new one-volume history, Christopher Tyerman’s God’s War, this more expansive definition is used, bulking up the page count accordingly. Thomas Asbridge is content to stick with the more canonical eight, beginning in 1095 and calling the whole thing off in 1291 with the fall of Acre to the Mamluks.

Even within the semi-official crusading canon there is a great deal of wiggle room. The infamous Fourth Crusade never made it past Constantinople (which may, in fact, have been its true objective). The Fifth and the Seventh wallowed about miserably in the Nile delta, and the Eighth died with Louis IX of France outside of Tunis. Frederick II had himself a very good crusade (the Sixth), but did so while excommunicated, and was pelted with filth by angry mobs when he left the Holy Land.

Current interest in the crusades – and Tyerman’s and Asbridge’s books are only two of the many that have been published on the subject recently – may have been sparked by George W. Bush’s naming the war on terror a crusade, along with all of the attendant “clash of civilizations” rhetoric. (Osama bin Laden’s equally inflammatory remarks invoking the crusades actually showed a richer historical awareness, make of that what you will.) The calling of a new crusade in 2011 sparked public interest in what the original ones had been about, and made medieval history suddenly sexy. Which is a good thing, as there are probably some lessons to be learned.

And it is still a great story. Asbridge, author of a previous history of the First Crusade, makes the Third (Richard “Lionheart” vs. Saladin) his focus here. This is a defensible approach, but it is pursued to such an extent it throws the narrative badly out of balance. Nearly fifty pages, for example, are given over to the epic siege of Acre that began in 1189. In comparison, the entire Fourth Crusade is covered in only six pages, with the siege of Constantinople in 1204 disappearing into the gap of a paragraph break.

If you assume from this that Asbridge isn’t much interested in the Byzantine Empire’s role in the crusades you would be correct, as it receives very short shrift throughout. There are really only two sides to the story here, highlighted by the book’s dramatic introduction to the Third Crusade (“The Trial of Champions”):

In late summer 1187, with Outremer still reeling from the cataclysm at Hattin and Saladin’s dismemberment of Frankish Palestine proceeding apace, Archbishop Joscius of Tyre set sail for the West. He bore tidings of Christendom’s calamitous defeat to the frail Pope Urban III, who promptly died of shock and grief [so legend has it, I always want to say]. In the weeks and months that followed, the devastating news raced across Europe, eliciting alarm, anguish and outrage – triggering a new call to arms for the campaign known to history as the Third Crusade. The most powerful men in the Latin world took up the cross, from Frederick Barbarossa, mighty emperor of Germany, to Philip II Augustus, the astute young king of France. But it was Richard the Lionheart, king of England – one of the greatest warriors of the medieval age – who emerged as champion of the Christian cause, challenging Saladin’s dominion of the Holy Land. Above all, the Third Crusade became a contest between these two titans, king and sultan, crusader and mujahid. After almost a century, the war for the Holy Land had brought these heroes to battle in an epic confrontation: one that tested both men to the breaking point; in which legends were forged and dreams demolished.

One hears in this echoes of Shelby Foote’s tournament pairing of Lincoln and Jefferson Davis in his chronicle of the Civil War. And while I think it’s a bit strained here, there’s no denying it’s an effective device. Of course it wouldn’t work without a solid scholarly underpinning, but The Crusades seems firm in that respect. It is only in the lack of balance mentioned earlier that one gets a feeling of wobble. This isn’t just due to the emphasis placed on the Third Crusade, but also the “innate partiality” European scholars have for describing the events from a Christian standpoint. Asbridge does his best here to play fair by alternating points of view from Christian to Muslim in each major section, but the bulk of the narrative is in the former camp. And one still stumbles a bit over passages like this:

With a view to reasserting his authority over Syria, al-Salih – like other Ayyubid rulers before him – looked to harness the feral brutality of the Khwarizmians, who were now under the command of their chief, Berke Khan. In response to al-Salih’s sumons, Berke led his mercenary horde of around 10,000 ravening troops into Palestine in early summer 1244.

No doubt the locals did view the Khwarizmians as a threat, but feral, ravening hordes? Asbridge doesn’t use language like this to describe equally brutal and destructive Westerners. And even though he does want to suggest some shadings into the traditional (Runcimanian) story, the fact remains that it was the Christian crusaders who did a bloody job of sacking Jerusalem, making Saladin’s conquest of the city seem enlightened in comparison.

The lessons that should have been learned? The crusades were a stupid idea from the beginning. The judgment of that sensible Scot David Hume still stands: the crusades were “the most signal and most durable monument of human folly that has yet appeared in any age or nation.” In retrospect it would have been better if the First Crusade had met with disaster at Dorylaeum or before the walls of Antioch. Modern histories, including this one, emphasize that the crusaders were not just a bunch of booty-hungry carpetbaggers but, at least in some instances, motivated by genuine religious feeling. Which is perhaps true, but does nothing to explain the Principality of Antioch, the County of Edessa, or even the Kingdom of Jerusalem. The Latin states of Outremer were absurd political constructs, inevitably and quite justifiably expelled by people who were at least fighting on their home ground. Leading up to that final act there were plenty of opportunities for co-operation between Christianity and Islam that were squandered, thanks largely to the more rigidly ideological Westerners. This may seem like a bit of anachronistic West-bashing, but it’s an important point and one that cannot be stressed enough: The crusades were wrong. They were wrong in terms of their goals and wrong in the prosecution of those goals. It would have been much better for both sides if everyone had just stayed home.

Review first published online April 25, 2011.

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