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Book Commentary/Review – The Crusades by Thomas Asbridge August 11, 2010

Posted by rwf1954 in book review, history, medieval period, the crusades.
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(Richard Warren Field wrote the award-winning novel,
The Swords of Faith. Read why this book will make a great movie.)

Thomas Asbridge’s The Crusades provides comprehensive coverage of this still controversial period of history. He offers this information in the widely-accepted conventional chronological format of numbered crusades, relaying the history with simple, accessible narrative language, distilling complex history into digestible morsels. How does he accomplish this in a mere 686 pages when others tackling this subject have written much longer treatments of the subject? He stays focused on the Middle East, and on the time period from 1095 to 1291. Absent from The Crusades are explorations of subjects like the crusades against the Cathars in France in the early 13th Century and the crusades by the Teutonic knights in eastern Europe during the 13th and 14th Centuries. These are topics often included in other books on the subject. Asbridge also offers only a slight discussion of the influence of the crusades beyond 1291. This allows Asbridge the space to provide thorough coverage of the periods he focuses on, mainly the First, Second and Third Crusades. As he proceeds, he adds his own well-reasoned interpretations of this period and its events, with an eye toward a balanced approach, trying to place in perspective some of the myth-building and hyperbole that has swirled around this period of history.

  •  In a comprehensive analysis of crusader culture after the First Crusade, he concludes that the crusader states were not “oppressive, exploitive European colonies,” nor were they “a haven of tolerance in which Christians, Muslims and Jews learned to live together in peace.” He makes the case that “the reality of life lay somewhere between these polar opposites.”
  • He takes a fresh look at Zengi, often considered the Muslim ruler who posed the first real threat to unravel the newly established crusader states by unifying Muslims to create a powerful opposition. Asbridge makes the case that Zengi operated as a conventional warlord, expanding his immediate holdings, and that taking Edessa, the first of the four crusader states to fall, was a target of opportunity for Zengi to expand his sphere of influence. Asbridge takes a similarly balanced look at Nur al-Din, Zengi’s son and successor, identifying the moment in Nur al-Din’s life when he went from regional warlord to Islamic jihadi warrior against Christians in the region.
  • Speaking of fresh looks, he also challenges, to some extent, Saladin’s reputation as noble religious warrior, arguing with a convincing look at the historical record that Saladin became more devoted to fighting for Islam after a near fatal illness in late 1185/early 1186, an illness that had him dictating his will. He suggests that before that, Saladin was more concerned with regional empire-building. In fact, Saladin did spend more time fighting Muslims than Christians, though his defenders would certainly argue that Saladin needed to unify Muslims in order to successfully fight Christians.
  • Asbridge’s presentation of the Third Crusade, the legendary battle between Richard the Lionheart and Saladin, retains Asbridge’s balanced approach and clear narrative. (This is a subject close to my heart, with the release of my novel about this fabled confrontation, The Swords of Faith.) He takes issue with the over-glorification of Saladin, pointing to specific incidents when Saladin was more brutal than the popular culture now leads us to believe. He points out that Saladin’s original intent was to sack Jerusalem in retaliation for the Christian brutality at the time of their capture of the city in 1099. After some negotiations, he changed his approach—a credit to this great man, and a point that makes him more human, more real, and may elevate his greatness by showing his willingness to adjust his intent at such an important moment. Asbridge also uses the sources of the period to demonstrate that Richard was not merely a callous brute, but a sophistcated leader and negotiator. And Asbridge’s conclusions about this historic confrontation are spot on: “By summer 1192 Saladin and Richard had fought one another to a standstill.” “In the end, neither Saladin nor Richard the Lionheart could claim victory in the Holy Land.”
  • Very little space is given to the Fourth Crusade, an operation that never got to the Middle East. This is consistent with Asbridge’s focus in the book.
  • The Fifth Crusade and Frederick II’s negotiations to obtain Jerusalem from Saladin’s nephew al-Kamil are accurately chronicled.
  • The crusading activity of St. Louis (Louis the IX of France) is also offered, complete with the disaster on the Nile that ended with St. Louis held for ransom. This began the emergence of a new Muslim hero, the slave-soldier Baybars. (Baybars is one of the title characters of my upcoming novel, The Sultan and the Khan.)
  • Asbridge spends a good amount of time on Baybars and his successors, offering a clear understanding of how Outremer—the crusader states, the western Christian rule imposed on the Middle East during this period—came to an end. Baybars, with his ruthless efficiency against a fading western Christian presence, brings Islam its ultimate victory. But Baybars brings a fanaticism in his approach to Christians very different from the measured, gentler approach of Saladin.
  • Asbridge spends a few pages on “The Legacy of the Crusades.” He points out that for many years, the Muslim world was not concerned with the crusades. He argues persuasively that what he calls ‘crusade parallelism,’ relating the current conflicts in the Middle East to the crusades, is not only misplaced but dangerous, because ‘crusade parallelism’ implies an “acceptance that a titanic clash is inevitable.” His review of the record leads him to conclude that “in truth, the war for the Holy Land had been all but forgotten by the end of the Middle Ages and was only resurrected centuries later.” He ends by saying “the crusades must also be placed where they belong: in the past.” 

The Crusades are a topic often written about, and readers will ask why they should add this book to their libraries. What will this add to the literature on the subject?

  • The flow of the narrative and clear writing supplements dryer treatments of the material. A reader can go to Steven Runciman’s classic three volume history of the crusades for more detailed dates and places. Asbridge’s book is huge in scope, but simple in its presentation.
  • Asbridge makes a successful effort to offer a balanced view of the subject, free of political agenda and myth-building. He spends most of his time detailing facts adduced from many primary sources, with his interpretations of those facts slipping neatly into the text after the factual basis is presented. 

And there should be no worries that readers of Jonathan Phillip’s book Holy Warriors (previously featured at this blog) will feel they are reading the same material again. The books complement each other, with some overlap of course, but with a lot of material not common between them. (I will be guest blogging about the comparison between these two books in the near future. I will list the time and place when details are set.)

The Crusades

The Crusades

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