The Crusades: The War for the Holy Land, by Thomas Asbridge
This compelling narrative details the Crusades in fascinating detail, describing the hardships faced by both the crusaders and those whose lands they invaded. Above all, Asbridge seeks to answer one single question: why did the Crusades take place?
There was no inevitability, he argues, about the wars fought for possession of the Holy Land between western European Christians and near-eastern Muslims from the late 11th to the late 13th centuries. The “first crusade” itself is a name steeped in hindsight, since the word “crusade” was not coined for more than 100 years after its participants set out – and, of course, they did not know that their armed “pilgrimage” would be the first of a series of such expeditions. Nor was it a response to an act of aggression from the Islamic world. Jerusalem had already been in Muslim hands for 400 years when Pope Urban II issued his call to arms for its rescue in 1095, and his reasons had more to do with the rejuvenation of western Christendom and the reassertion of papal authority than any challenge from Islam.
In fact, what set the scene for two centuries of conflict was the astonishing success of this unprecedented expedition. Against the odds and at a terrible human cost, Jerusalem was captured in 1099 by a European army fighting thousands of miles from home. The Latin states summoned so violently into precarious existence by this campaign along the coast of Palestine, Lebanon and Syria – the kingdom of Jerusalem, the principality of Antioch and the counties of Tripoli and Edessa – then had to be defended against circling Muslim enemies, while simultaneously serving as a glorious vindication of the crusading project.
The damp squib that was the second crusade of 1147-9 was therefore led, unlike the pioneering first, by two of the greatest monarchs of Europe, Louis VII of France and Conrad III of Germany, with a degree of expectation and entitlement that contributed significantly to their failure. No less a factor, however, was the opposing leadership of the Zangid dynasty in Syria, embodied most powerfully in the formidable figure of Nur al-Din, “the Light of Faith”. The care that Asbridge takes to maintain this double vision – analysis from both sides of the front line – comes into its own in describing the third crusade of 1189-92, with its momentous but ultimately inconclusive confrontation between Richard, the lionhearted crusader-king of England, and the mighty Ayyubid sultan, known in the west as Saladin.
Earlier in the narrative, before the emergence of these two charismatic leaders, it takes sustained concentration to keep track of the convoluted politics of “Outremer” – the Latin lands “beyond the sea”, their reality grimmer than the fairytale name with which they were dubbed, and ruled by a succession of Baldwins, Bohemonds, Tancreds and Joscelins – or of the power struggles in the Muslim world between Shias and Sunnis, Fatimids, Zangids and Ayyubids. Meanwhile, the military technicalities of campaign and counterstrike, of skirmish and siege, will enthral some and leave others cold.
Amid the detailed horrors of war, however, a cumulative picture emerges of some resonant historical truths. Crusading historiography has expended much energy over the years attempting to establish whether its protagonists were driven into battle by self-interested lust for power or by genuine faith (the implication being that the latter would be somehow more admirable than the former); but the answer here – unsurprisingly, but importantly – is both/and, not either/or.
Human beings, then as now, live in contradiction and multiplicity. It was real religious fervour that impelled thousands of Christians to travel into the unknown and face unimagined hardships in a quest to earn salvation by reclaiming their sacred sites, but that would not stop them attacking the eastern Christians of Byzantium on the way, forging lucrative trading relationships with their Muslim enemies, or welcoming boatloads of prostitutes to the holy cities they conquered so bloodily. Nor would devout enthusiasm within Islam for holy war prevent Muslim leaders from prioritising vicious internecine struggles in Egypt or Mesopotamia over the attempt to drive out Christians.
And the sheer range of Asbridge’s narrative emphasises the centrality of such geopolitical imperatives as well as the dictates of faith. The eastern coastline of the Mediterranean, at the intersection of Africa, Asia and Europe, formed a volatile frontier between the kingdoms of western Christendom, the Byzantine empire, the Seljuq Turks, successive waves of near-eastern dynasties culminating, after the Ayyubids’ fall, in the Mamluk sultanate, and the Mongol horde. This was no monolithic clash of civilisations. For centuries, indeed, in Muslim historiography, the conflict was known simply as the “wars of the Franks” – and, as Asbridge demonstrates, its reframing since the 19th century as the “wars of the Cross” is a product of alarmingly modern, rather than medieval, political dynamics. A grim and thought-provoking read, then, in view of the light it sheds upon the present as well as the past.