There are certain historical subjects—Mary Queen of Scots, Napoleon, the American Civil War, and the downfall of Hitler among them—that have attracted such a mass of writing and rewriting that they have acquired a gravitational pull and, rather than discouraging other historians from producing more books on these well-worn subjects, attract yet more retellings. The Crusades is another one. The story started to be told, shaped, and reshaped almost as soon as it had started. The medieval chroniclers of the Crusades—such as the anonymous author of the chronicle of the First Crusade known as the Gesta Francorum; William, archbishop of Tyre, the chronicler of the twelfth-century Kingdom of Jerusalem; and the “Templar of Tyre,” the eyewitness of the final downfall of the great coastal city of Acre in 1291—tended to present the history of the Kingdom of Jerusalem as a morality tale whose past and future had been marked out by texts from the Bible. God gave victory to the deserving, while defeat and death were the punishments for sin and lack of faith.
When the army of the First Crusade conquered Jerusalem in 1099, a slaughter of the Muslim and Jewish inhabitants took place, and contemporary chroniclers reported that when the Christian knights rode through the Temple area of the city, the blood of the slaughtered rose to the level of their stirrups. This was not documentary reportage. The aim was rather to present the conquest of the city as a fulfillment of Revelation 14:20: “And the winepress was trodden without the city, and blood came out of the winepress, even unto the horse bridles.”
The Books of Maccabees were particularly favored by preachers and participants in Crusades, dealing as they did with the redemption of Israel through warfare. According to one source, Urban II cited Maccabees in the sermon at the Council of Clermont in 1095, which launched the First Crusade. A few years later, when the army of the First Crusade victoriously confronted the Seljuk Turks at the Battle of Dorylaeum, the writer Raymond of Aguilers described how the Christian force had been aided by “protectors: ‘two handsome knights in flashing armor, riding before our soldiers and seemingly invulnerable to the thrusts of Turkish lances.’” He was probably borrowing this inspiring image from the second book of Maccabees, in which “five comely men upon horses, with bridles of gold” shield Maccabeus from the enemy. Isaiah was also useful. Innocent III, in arguing that the target of the Fourth Crusade should be godless Egypt rather than Palestine, cited Isaiah 31:3: “Now the Egyptians are men, and not God.” (In fact the Fourth Crusade went and sacked Constantinople in 1204.)
When the Crusades failed (and except for the first they all failed), defeat was only occasionally explained as a result of poor strategy or lack of manpower. Confronted with the failure of the Fifth Crusade to conquer Egypt, Oliver of Cologne preferred to ascribe it to sin: “If it is asked why Damietta returned so quickly to the unbelievers the answer is clear. It was luxury-loving, it was ambitious, it was mutinous. Besides, it was exceedingly ungrateful to God and to men.” When in 1216 the churchman Jacques de Vitry arrived in Acre, the capital of a Kingdom of Jerusalem that no longer included Jerusalem, he was horrified by what he found there: Orientals, deviant Christians, prostitutes, outlaws, sorcerers, murderers, and people who could not be bothered to come to his sermons. This was a city that would be doomed by its sinfulness.
The story of the Crusades, like the books of the Bible, drew upon miracles and prophecies. In The World of the Crusades, Christopher Tyerman describes the background to Pope Urban II’s call in 1095 for a Crusade. His “decision to include the liberation of the Holy Sepulchre” in Jerusalem from the Fatimid Caliphate
carried wide significance, not least by tapping into current eschatological excitement, a perception, encouraged by some popular preachers, a series of poor harvests and some unusual celestial phenomena, that the world was facing the Apocalypse, as prophesied in the Book of Revelation when Christ would return with a New Jerusalem.
After the army of the First Crusade had successfully taken Antioch in northern Syria, but were then besieged by an enormous army commanded by the Turk Kerbogha, they were encouraged to sally out and defeat that army by an opportune vision that had led to the discovery in the city of the Holy Lance that had pierced Christ’s side on the cross. When, more than a century later, Oliver of Cologne called for the Fifth Crusade in front of a Frisian audience, he reported that he was helped by the appearance of a miraculous cloud with a white cross on it, and this was followed by
another cross of the same color and shape, thirdly a great cross appeared between and above these…which had on it the form of a human body, so it seemed, as tall as a man, naked…his head leaning on his shoulders and his arms not stretched out straight but raised up above. There were, clearly visible, nails through the hands and feet.
Such wonders validated the Crusading enterprise.
The Muslims were also attracted to miraculous explanations. After the fall of Acre to the Mamluks in 1291 (hijri year 690), the emir charged with the destruction of the city found a lead tablet written in Greek that, when translated, predicted the imminent global triumph of the followers of Muhammad: “His community shall possess all the regions of Persians and the Franks and others, and if they enter the year 700 his community shall possess all the lands of the Franks.”
The presentation of the Crusades as a kind of morality roman fleuve has continued into modern times, most notably in Steven Runciman’s stylishly written three-volume A History of the Crusades (1951–1954). Runciman’s history, which owed a great deal in its general approach and detailed referencing to René Grousset’s three-volume Histoire des croisades et du royaume franc de Jérusalem (1934–1936), has never been out of print. He excelled in set-piece tableaux, such as his opening description of the Caliph Omar, riding on a white camel and dressed in filthy robes, taking peaceful possession of Jerusalem in 638—a description that serves as a perfect counterpoint to his appalled account of the Crusaders’ sack of Jerusalem in 1099, including a description of Raymond of Aguilers visiting the Temple area and having “to pick his way through corpses and blood that reached up to his knees.”
Runciman, an admirer of Byzantine and Muslim culture, was certain that the Crusades were a mistake, and as Tyerman notes in his concluding survey of the afterlife of the Crusades, for Runciman “the crusades bore witness to the eternal dangers of unbridled ideological passion pitted against civility.” Tyerman adds:
From a vertiginous pose of confident intellectual eminence, Runciman passed timeless adamantine judgements, none more so than his famous condemnation of the Crusaders’ sack of Constantinople in 1204: “there never was a greater crime against humanity than the fourth Crusade,” a verdict delivered in 1954, just years after the principle of crimes against humanity had first been defined and internationally accepted in the aftermath of the atrocities of the Third Reich, Japanese imperialism, the Holocaust and the Second World War.
Viewed as history, Runciman’s work presents quite a few problems—he was consistently biased in favor of the Byzantines and didn’t critically examine the sources he needed for his exciting story—but viewed as literature it is superb, and it is possible that the current efflorescence of studies of the Crusades in Britain owes something to the inspiration of his literary masterpiece, though much credit must also go to the more sober and accurate work produced later by such figures as R.C. Smail, Jonathan Riley-Smith, and Bernard Hamilton. A younger generation of academic historians is still teaching and publishing, including Thomas Asbridge, Peter Edbury, Susan Edgington, Helen Nicholson, Jonathan Phillips, Denys Pringle, Steve Tibble, and Tyerman himself (who is a professor at Oxford and has a string of weighty studies on the Crusades to his credit). French scholars used to dominate the subject, the Crusades being regarded as primarily a bit of French history; when in 1980 the international Society for the Study of the Crusades and the Latin East was established, the French doyen of Crusader studies, Claude Cahen, was invited, indeed was begged, to join it, but he refused, as he regarded the society’s founding as masking the takeover of Crusade studies by the British. Perhaps he was right.
All three of the authors of the books reviewed here are British, though Dan Jones and Roger Crowley are not academics but professional writers who aim for a popular audience. Jones, who has previously written books on the Plantagenets, the Wars of the Roses, and the Templars, is a huge admirer of Runciman’s “glorious” work, and the introduction to Crusaders ends with a quotation from Runciman: “The romantic story of the Crusades was an epic written in blood.” Jones’s writing aims at a you-are-there effect, and this is best achieved by almost exclusively quoting primary sources, while mostly sidestepping the doubts and theories of academics. Nevertheless, his reading of specialized studies is comprehensive and up to date, including, for example, Jeffrey Lee’s God’s Wolf: The Life of the Most Notorious of All Crusaders, Reynald de Chatillon (2017) and Jay Rubenstein’s Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream: The Crusades, Apocalyptic Prophecy, and the End of History (2019). Some of Jones’s primary sources are little known, and even enthusiasts for the subject may never have heard of the Russian Daniel the Abbot, Saint Neophytos the Recluse, or La Chronique de Morigny. It is good to be introduced to Margaret of Beverley’s account of how, with a cooking pot on her head, she took part in the doomed defense of Jerusalem against Saladin in 1187.
The immediacy of Jones’s book is enhanced by physical and psychological descriptions of the heroes and villains of the story. Yaghisiyan, the Turkish commander of the garrison at Antioch, had big hairy ears and a beard that flowed down to his navel. Ilghazi, one of the Turkish warlords who ravaged Syria at the time of the First Crusade, was “a sadistic dipsomaniac.” Jones draws on the Byzantine princess Anna Comnena’s account of her father’s reign to describe Bohemond of Taranto, one of the leaders of the First Crusade, as “tall, broad-chested and handsome, with large hands and a solid stance, captivating light blue eyes and a fair complexion, his hair cut short around his ears and his chin shaved quite smooth.” (Though Anna’s depiction of Bohemond is otherwise relentlessly hostile, I wonder if she did not fancy him as a bit of Frankish rough.)
Jones has a taste for Grand Guignol. On their way to Jerusalem the army of the First Crusade succeeded in taking the small town of Ma’arrat an-Nu’man, but then found little to eat within its walls. Jones quotes the Gesta Francorum: “‘[Our men] ripped up the bodies of the dead, because they used to find bezants [gold coins] hidden in their entrails…. Others cut the dead flesh into slices and cooked it to eat.’” A governor of Gabès in Muslim Ifriqiyya, who wanted to surrender the town to Roger of Sicily, was seized and tortured by those who disagreed with him; they ended up using his severed penis to choke him. In 1147 a fleet carrying Crusaders from the British Isles and Flanders en route to Syria stopped off in Portugal to assist in the siege of Muslim Lisbon, and “those demoralised citizens who came out begging for mercy and baptism were sent back to the city with their hands cut off.” The Count of Flanders “came to the East in 1177 to atone for the sin of having had the lover of his adulterous wife Elizabeth’s beaten to death with a mace and dumped headfirst in a lavatory.” “An epic written in blood,” indeed.
Jones is fairly skeptical of Saladin’s self-presentation as the ruler who was above all dedicated to a Holy War against the Crusaders, and points out that he fought other Muslims as often as Christians and that when he did fight he was often defeated. (Tyerman is similarly skeptical.) It is true that Saladin maintained a team of salaried panegyrists who commemorated his achievements in chronicles, poetry, and bombastic proclamations, but it is also the case that he had a wider circle of admirers, including Ibn Jubayr, who passed through Saladin’s lands on his pilgrimage from Spain to Mecca; ‘Abd al-Latif al-Baghdadi, an Iraqi physician who visited Egypt; and Ibn al-Athir, a chronicler based in Zengid Mosul.
Roger Crowley’s The Accursed Tower: The Fall of Acre and the End of the Crusades provides a whistle-stop history of the Crusader states before hastening on to a detailed account of the last days of the rump of the Crusader Kingdom and the siege of Acre by a Mamluk army under the command of Sultan al-Ashraf Khalil in 1291. Crowley is very good on the topography and archaeology of medieval Acre and good also on the military technology of the time, especially the operation of trebuchets (a kind of catapult) and the mining of walls.
There are a few errors in the early part of the book regarding Islamic history. When Crowley describes the Mongols in their advance across the Middle East as having “destroyed the existing Persian dynasty and pushed its Turkic tribal rulers, the Khwarazmians, into Palestine,” it is not clear which Persian dynasty was being destroyed and when. Neither of the two major dynasties of the time of the Crusades were in fact Persian: the Khwarazm Shahs were Turkish, and the Abbasid Caliph in Baghdad was an Arab. It is also misleading to describe the thirteenth-century Mongol ruler Hülegü as “the khan of Mesopotamia.” Hülegü was Ilkhan of Iran and consequently he and Berke, the Mongol khan of the Golden Horde, had a disputed common frontier in the Caucasus.
Like Jones, Crowley quotes extensively from primary sources. On the Christian side, the best source is the Templar of Tyre, who if he was not actually a Templar certainly knew the Soldiers of Christ and their Grand Master pretty well and who remained in Acre almost to the very end. On the Muslim side, two participants in the siege, the Arab prince Abu’l-Fida and the Turkish emir Baybars al-Mansuri, described the fighting in their chronicles, but Crowley rightly observes that the Western sources are much better on the details of the fighting and descriptions of tactics and weapons used. The Arabic chronicles tended to resort to a generalized rhetoric that could apply to any siege.
Crowley’s book has the feel of a slow-burning tragedy, and most of its readers will hope that Acre under the Crusaders will survive the ordeal of 1291 even though they know it will not. Comparisons with the sinking of the Titanic come to mind, since, as it became obvious that the city was not going to survive, those who could afford it arranged for ships to take them away to safety in Cyprus and elsewhere. The less fortunate fought and died.
In 1986 a British historian of the Middle East, P.M. Holt, published The Age of the Crusades: The Near East from the Eleventh Century to 1517. The title was absurd, since the period in question saw the breakup of the Seljuk Sultanate, the elimination of the Fatimid Caliphate, the Mongol invasions, the end of the ‘Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad, the collapse of the Mamluk Sultanate in Egypt and Syria, and the beginnings of the Ottoman and Safavid Empires. It was not defined by the beleaguered presence of Crusader cities and villages on the coastal strip of Syria and Palestine, or unsuccessful Crusader raids on the Nile Delta.
Though Tyerman has devoted most of his academic career to writing about the Crusades, he does not overestimate the impact of the Crusades on the Near East; he instead argues that the Crusades had a stronger effect on Europe than on the Muslim lands. The World of the Crusades embraces much of Christendom and not only devotes a lot of attention to the Crusades and pseudo-Crusades that took place in Europe—including the Baltic Crusades against pagan and Orthodox Balts, Finns, and Slavs; the Reconquista in Spain and Portugal; and the Crusades against the heretical Albigensians (Cathars) in southern France and the Hohenstaufen, whose most powerful member, Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, was deemed the Antichrist by Pope Gregory IX—but also pays careful attention to all the necessary preparations in Europe (preaching, financing, arming, and fleet-building) before Crusader expeditions could set out for the East.
Jones and Crowley tend to present the medieval conflict between Christianity and Islam as fierce. Tyerman, by contrast, stresses the truces, the accommodations, the trading relations, and the occasions when the armies of Crusader lords fought alongside Muslim princes. Reading Jones and Crowley one might get the impression that the Franks of the Crusader principalities almost all lived within the walls of such cities as Jerusalem, Acre, Tyre, Beirut, Tripoli, and Antioch, and that is indeed what the chronicles and other literary sources suggest, but the archaeological evidence tells another story. Tyerman, who has read Ronnie Ellenblum’s pioneering study Frankish Rural Settlement in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem (1998), knows that Frankish lords and farmers were quite widely settled in villages throughout the kingdom, and that those villages were mostly populated by native Christians.
Tyerman has not striven to produce a visceral account of the Crusades, and his descriptions of the appearance and the psychology of the figures he discusses are brisk, when they are there at all, but his book is strong in analysis and synthesis, where Jones’s and Crowley’s are weak. To take just one example, the opening sentences of Jones’s Crusaders are: “Count Roger of Sicily lifted his leg and farted. ‘By the truth of my religion,’ he exclaimed, ‘there is more use in that than in what you say!’” Jones treats this as evidence for Roger’s rejection of his advisers’ proposal to launch an attack on Muslim North Africa. Tyerman has the same story, but he regards the anecdote as merely “ben trovato” and points out that it is related by a Mosuli Arab chronicler writing over a century later. All too often invented dialogues and vivid incidents found in “primary sources” do not describe what actually happened but have a convenient explanatory function.
Though The World of the Crusades is copiously and beautifully illustrated, Tyerman has not been well served by his picture researcher—or by the writer of his jacket copy. A picture of a cross-legged Arab with a mysterious ball in his hand is captioned “Saladin, a contemporary image.” It is no such thing. It is an illustration from a thirteenth-century Egyptian manuscript of Ismail al-Jazari’s Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices, and the Arab in question is a robot that every half hour drops a pellet into the mouth of the dragon that is also a robotic part of this ingenious clepsydra. Saladin never sat for a portrait and, though figural art was quite common in the medieval Near East, this did not include actual portraits. (When the Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta visited China in the early fourteenth century, he was astounded to discover that the Chinese could produce portraits of him and his companions in which “the resemblance was correct in all respects.”) Again in Tyerman’s book, there is an illustration that is captioned “Baibars and his court.” No, it is not. This image of an enthroned ruler is the frontispiece to a work of fiction, al-Hariri’s Maqamat (Seances), and it was produced in Egypt in 1334, quite some time after the death of Baybars.
As for jacket copy, it describes Tyerman’s book as “definitive.” But the history of Crusade historiography suggests that the fashions and techniques for writing that history constantly evolve, from eighteenth-century denunciations, to nineteenth-century French pride in their proto-colonial past, to Runciman’s moralized version. If The World of the Crusades really were definitive, then the subject would be closed and that would be a sad thing. Happily, Tyerman agrees. In his concluding chapter he presents an eloquent account of the subject’s “contested afterlife,” and concludes with these words: “Much remains; much still to be examined and disputed. This is as it should be. It is called history.”