Skip to comments.The Crusades as History, Not Metaphor
Posted on 04/02/2005 12:09:59 PM PST by Destro
The Crusades as History, Not Metaphor
By HUGH KENNEDY
Published: April 3, 2005
The air is full of talk of crusades. Few ideas generated in the early Middle Ages have shown such resilience. Monasticism is a shadow of its former self, chivalry is only a rhetorical device, monarchy is robbed of the power and magic that once made it formidable. The idea of the crusade, however, seems to have acquired a new relevance and vitality. The memory of these medieval expeditions from Europe to the Middle East haunts the political discourse of our relations with the Muslim world. The word ''crusade'' is used by Western politicians almost without thought to describe a war fought for idealistic and ideological motives, rather than for naked gain. For many Muslims, brought up to see themselves as innocent victims and the idea of the crusade as essentially anti-Islamic, the apparent survival of the crusading ideal is threatening and sinister.
A little history is dangerous. The real story of the Crusades is often misrepresented for polemical reasons. But three new books try to set the record straight, or at least make the results of recent scholarship more accessible.
It all began with a sermon by Pope Urban II in Clermont-Ferrand in central France in November 1095. People had talked of fighting for God or the church before, but as Thomas Asbridge in ''The First Crusade'' and Christopher Tyerman in ''Fighting for Christendom'' make clear, the appeal Urban made was fundamentally new. The idea of a Christian army setting out to help the Greek Orthodox of the Byzantine Empire and to bring the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem under Christian rule proved irresistible, and the sermons of traveling preachers who continued Urban's work ignited the great movement called the First Crusade.
Asbridge's book gives exactly the sort of fast-flowing narrative the story demands. He writes clearly and vigorously, with a fine eye for telling detail. Having walked considerable parts of the itinerary the Crusade followed, he presents a vivid picture of the landscapes they passed through. He admires the crusaders' hardiness and extraordinary boldness without condoning cruelties they inflicted. He makes the point that few came back laden with riches and he follows most modern research in stressing that for the vast majority the motivation really was religious: ''Some found fame, others notoriety; a select few were catapulted to power and influence, but thousands more were left broken and destitute. Many felt they had lived through a miracle and, having been touched by the hand of God, found their faith strengthened.'' This lively account of the Crusade looks set to replace Steven Runciman's classic 1951 account of the expedition as the best introduction to the subject.
The First Crusade has usually been perceived as a triumph, at least in terms of its objectives. The Fourth Crusade was an unmitigated disaster. The French barons who gathered at the tournament of Ecry in November 1199 and pledged themselves to take the cross and liberate the Holy Land were as full of idealism and pious motives as any of their predecessors. But by a series of tragic accidents the enterprise went astray early on. Fewer volunteers joined up than were anticipated, and the Venetian fleet that was to take them to the East could not be paid for. An appeal for help by a claimant to the throne of Constantinople, with a promise to resolve their financial mess, seemed the only way out. When the crusaders found themselves unpaid and locked out of the great city, they took a terrible revenge, sacking it and taking what they wanted: the treasury of St Mark's in Venice is still rich with the plunder they acquired.
If the First Crusade and the fall of Jerusalem poisoned relations between Christians and Muslims, the sack of Constantinople had a similar effect on relations between Latin and Greek Orthodox Christians. True, things had not been all sweetness and light before 1204. But the sack of the great center of Eastern Christianity by the Westerners left a legacy of hate and distrust between the two largest branches of Christianity that is still with us. That legacy only grew stronger after Moscow emerged as the heir to Eastern Rome.
The story of that Crusade is complex, with an involved diplomatic and commercial background and a host of competing interests -- a story of idealism brought up short by realpolitik; men made so many compromises, each reasonable in itself, that they lost their original purpose. In ''The Fourth Crusade,'' Jonathan Phillips gives us the history with care, humanity and a scrupulous regard for the sources. If the book lacks some of the enthusiasm of Asbridge's, this is in part because what happened is more difficult to sort out.
Like Asbridge, Phillips has produced a lively book that conveys the intricacies of the situation without getting lost in detail. He is especially good on the history of warfare. Much of the military success of the crusaders against the massive walls of Constantinople and the Byzantine Army was due to the cult of the tournament. In the late 12th century, he stresses, that was not the mannered jousting of the later Middle Ages; it was ''warfare lite,'' sometimes not very different from the real thing. Knights of the crusading armies had a wealth of military experience and it counted; as a 12th-century English chronicler put it, ''The science of war, if not practiced beforehand, cannot be gained when it becomes necessary.'' The Fourth Crusade was the triumph of a small core of battle-brutalized men for whom fighting was central to their lives.
Christopher Tyerman's book is the shortest but also the most ambitious of the three. In little over 200 pages of text, Tyerman attempts an overall account of the crusading movement, its origins and ideology and its role in later history. His judgments are shrewd and forceful. He has no time for bogus links between crusaders and modern Muslim jihadists: ''The idea that the modern political conflicts in the Near East or elsewhere derive from the legacy of the Crusades or are being conducted as neo-crusades . . . is deceitful'' and ''there is nothing old-fashioned, still less 'medieval,' about the techniques, recruitment or ideology of Al Qaeda. The devious polemical association between 'crusaders' and 'Jews' is historical nonsense.''
This vigorous argument is an important corrective for anyone who would argue for the long-term inevitability of conflict between Christianity and Islam. Tyerman is especially good on the preaching of the Crusades, and the showmanship and manipulation often used by propagandists. Both he and Asbridge discuss at length how a religion so obviously pacifist as early Christianity could be distorted into a justification for aggression and mayhem.
All three books can be recommended to a general reader who wants an introduction to the Crusades and their legacy. They also show a commitment by younger historians to move away from the circularity of much academic writing and show that what they have to say is important for the public. Above all, they are scholars who believe that their work should be exciting and fun to read.
Hugh Kennedy is the author of ''Crusader Castles'' and the forthcoming ''When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World.''
"They also show a commitment by younger historians to move away from the circularity of much academic writing and show that what they have to say is important for the public. Above all, they are scholars who believe that their work should be exciting and fun to read."
Well that's something, anyway.
They hope for a gig on the History channel.
ping for later
Ping for later.
The Crusades are one of my favorite periods of history, and one I am not as familiar with as I would like.
No, it all began with the Muslim conquest of the Christian Holy Land in the 7th Century.