I don’t think I have ever described a history book as an emotional rollercoaster before, but there is always a first time. The first for me is Thomas Asbridge’s “The Crusades: The Authoritative History of the War for the Holy Land.” This book spans the climactic years of 1095 – 1291 A.D. from the launching of the First Crusade to the final fall of the Crusader states. Despite knowing how the story ends, so to speak, I was on the edge of my seat the entire book, following the events with a mixture of admiration, horror and exasperation.
Asbridge begins his exhaustively researched account by going back in time to the latter days of the Roman Empire and the rise of the Catholic Middle Ages to explore the origins of the strange notion of “Holy War,” and describes the military, economic, cultural and political environment in which that notion arose. He takes (almost) equal care to examine the related Islamic concept of Jihad. During the two-century crusading period he takes care to alternate point of view between Christian and Muslim forces, although for some reason the bulk of the storytelling is done from the Christian perspective. I am not sure what the reason for this is. I suspect it has more to do with the relative availability of access to the primary sources that he builds his narrative upon.
He also makes strong efforts to tease out what life in the Holy Land was actually like during the crusading period, and comes down strongly against the notion that it was one long bloodbath of barbaric ferocity and unmitigated atrocity. Examining taxation records, economic legislation, personal letters and journals, he reconstructs an image of a world of shifting allegiance, borders and interests in which economic activity and temporary political alliances were as important as warfare. Skirmishes and battles were common, but these often left the face of the land and the common people untouched.
He documents the chronic in-fighting, greed and ambition that plagued and hampered both sides and ultimately led to the downfall of the Crusader States, without a doubt the most frustrating part of the story. When he judges the actions or decisions of the very characters he takes care to do so based only upon what they most likely knew at the time, rather than judging them based on hindsight.
Finally, he addresses the burning question of whether and to what extent the Crusades were merely examples of a perennial and inevitable clash of civilizations that continues into our present day. He makes a strong argument that the term “Crusade” has fluctuated meanings drastically in its long history, (Jihad less so) and that it is a misappropriation of history to regard the current struggles in the Middle East as successors or continuation of the Crusades. He ends the book on a cautiously hopeful note, but with a realistic view of the dangers of the popular image of the Crusades, divorced from the real, complex history of the period.
While I think he somewhat downplays the consistency of conflict between Islam and the West, and the consistency of conflict in the Middle East, his point about misappropriation of history is well-taken. This book is a great primer on a fascinating and influential period of history. Available as a brilliantly performed audio book from Audible.