The Holy Land occupies a unique place in human history, its significance unparalleled and doggedly persistent. It’s the birthplace of three major world religions, and home to some of the earliest, longest-lasting, and most fought over cities and settlements on the globe. Though the names, faces, and motives may be different, today’s conflicts in this troubled yet alluring region are not far removed from the conflicts that raged hundreds of years ago, and with The Crusades, author and medieval historian Thomas Asbridge wipes away the obscuring dust of passed time to reveal a stunningly complicated and familiar set of circumstances.
Asbridge, who found success with his earlier book, The First Crusade, has now taken on the full 200 year span in his mammoth, highly comprehensive study of the clash between the armies of Europe and the Middle East. It’s no small challenge, and Asbridge makes an effort to explore each crusade in close detail, covering the major players and minor maneuvers, both military and political, that defined the battles. The result is a finely rendered portrait of the crusades that goes beyond the simplistic religious motivations that most people think of when they consider the subject, and reveal the inner workings of the medieval aristocracy, armies, and spiritual movements.
That said, Asbridge’s preoccupation with detail makes The Crusades something of a slog throughout much of the narrative, particularly during the chapters that deal with the First and Second Crusades. While they’re certainly informative, and provide an important foundation upon which the rest of the book may build, these chapters struggle to find focus amidst a wide array of characters and a bevy of unfamiliar locations. Soldiers march from mountains to cities to deserts to other cities, back and forth, in a single paragraph, their travels not registering in a coherent path.
It’s difficult to conjure the geography, or rather, the narrative geography, of the first and second crusades. Asbridge seems on the cusp of anointing a figure that can carry the story, such as Peter Bartholomew, a Frankish peasant whose prophetic visions discovered a sacred relic, the Holy Lance, which served as a rallying point for the men of the First Crusade. Unfortunately, none seem to hold the stage for long enough to build a relationship with the reader, and soon the cavalcade of new names becomes numbing.
The Crusades picks up steam in the interbellum years following the First Crusade, when the Franks have established their own colonial kingdom in the Holy Land, Outremer, French for “overseas”. Here it becomes clear that freeing the Holy Land from the so-called infidels was only a single motivator. Many lesser nobles and aristocrats took the long, arduous trip across the continent not just for spiritual rewards, but for temporal ones as well. With a firm grip on their new territory following the defeat of a disorganized and unprepared collection of Arabic forces, these fighters turned themselves into newly styled Kings and Lords, ruling over fresh territory and peer to their counterparts back in Europe. They fought for God, and God’s providence granted them the divine right to rule over the lands they captured with his assistance. It was a fair bargain.
It’s not until after the Second Crusade, however, when Asbridge finds his marquee star, the brash, calculating Arab sultan Saladin. Asbridge follows the great leader’s consolidation of power and eventual domination of Egypt and Syria, from where he then projected his forces toward not only the invading Franks, but also toward his Arabic rivals who took up most of his time and energy. Saladin is a complex figure, and it’s a pleasure to learn more about the man. A wise leader, shrewd politician, and powerful general, Saladin was the pinnacle of Islamic resistance to the crusades, and his cat-and-mouse games with Richard the Lionheart during the Third Crusade are the stuff of legend.
For readers interested in a crash course in this fascinating time in history, The Crusades will give you everything you need to know, in painstaking detail. It just may not give you everything you want to know; a book with such ambitious scope must make sacrifices. Obviously Asbridge’s book on the First Crusade is more able to explore the nuances and personalities of that conflict in its 400 pages than The Crusades can for the same subject in roughly two chapters. Nevertheless, it’s an excellent starting point for getting familiar with the history and coming to grips with the surprising truths and exciting stories of those far off times.