The Epic of the Crusades
A History of the Crusades, Vol. I: The First Hundred Years
A History of the Crusades, Vol. II: The Later Crusades
The Christian Centuries, A New History of the Catholic Church Vol. II: The Middle Ages
The Norman Achievement
Heresies of the High Middle Ages
The Great Church in Captivity
Every generation, it is said, writes its own history in the light of its own experience; and if this is so, it is not surprising that the great process of decolonization which we have witnessed since 1947 should force us to look again—with alerted eyes and new perspectives—at that first age of European colonialism which we call the Crusades.
What interests us about the Crusades is no longer what René Grousset, writing in 1939, called their “epic” quality, the deeds of valor of Christian “heroes and saints,” responding to the call for the defense of Christendom. We are concerned rather to uncover the psychological roots of this first manifestation of European aggressiveness; to relate it to and see what light it casts upon the later drives of predatory colonialism, from the conquistadors of Mexico and Peru to Hitler’s jack-booted storm troopers; not least of all to discover how Christianity, with its message of peace and good will, was debilitated and deformed until it became, more than any other of the great religions, including Islam, the religion of the sword.
If the Crusades still interest us, it is because we sense that they marked a great turning point in the history of the West; they were the moment at which “the peculiar relationship between Faustian violence and ideology,” between “a near-mystical sense of destiny” and “arrogance,” “brutal practicality,” and “rapacity,” which Edmund Stillman and William Pfaff described as the essential characteristics of Western (including North American) man, first became explicit. Total war, say Stillman and Pfaff, is a Western innovation, never practiced elsewhere; and total war is the linear descendant of Holy War, as preached and practiced in the eleventh century.
The changing attitude to the Crusades is more implicit than explicit in these books. René Grousset was a distinguished but rather old-fashioned French orientalist, who wrote a substantial three-volume history of the Crusades between 1934 and 1936; but the present popular work, with its naïve infusion of Christian pathos and French patriotism, was one of his less substantial efforts, and it is hard to think why it should ever have been translated. Certainly its approach is far removed from current preoccupations.
So also, in a different way, is that of the stately History of the Crusades appearing under the general editorship of Kenneth M. Setton. These two volumes (there are three more to come) are also a reissue, virtually unchanged, of an older work. Planned as long ago as 1939, they first appeared in 1955 and 1962; and almost inevitably they show signs of age. For one thing, their very scale is redolent of palmier days. It seems to reflect the view, once common among historians but now discarded, that the way to answer questions is to assemble all the facts in meticulous detail, whereas in reality too often the result is to hide the problems from view behind a dazzling but blinding panoply of erudition.
The two volumes of the History of the Crusades (particularly …