Tuesday, November 14, 2006

First Crusade book review

The First Crusade: Origins and Impact by Jonathan Phillips, ed. (1997)

There are only a few historical events initiated with Christian fervor that, on the face of it, are as hard to defend as the Crusades; the Catholic-Protestant wars and the policies for dealing with heretics are probably the others. And yet the First Crusade was initiated by the appeal of Pope Urban II, partly in response to the increasing encroachment of Muslim armies on previously Christian lands, including an appeal by the Byzantine emperor.

This collection of essays on the First Crusade, written by professors and lecturers of history at UK colleges and universities, revises and corrects myths about the First Crusade. Jonathan Riley-Smith, Marcus Bull, and Carole Hillenbrand each point out that two sources of information for the First Crusade have been neglected: monastic charters and Arabic texts that have not yet been translated into English, including Arabic poetry and geography.

In the first essay, “Patronage and the appeal of the First Crusade,” John France dismantles the myth of the younger son and briefly states the amount of supplies a typical crusader would have needed and the issues of patronage that would have arisen. Crusading was an undertaking that required a large amount of resources and any possible plunder would have been property that the crusader seized during forays or captures of a city – there was no organized division of property among crusaders in the First Crusade (William G. Zajac’s “Captured property”).

Most interestingly, France points out that many of our views of medieval people and society are formed by our modern conception of “separation of the poor…from political structures” – a class society that uses the Marxist dialectic. France writes: “The analysis of the motives of the first crusaders based on the notion of a simple stratified society has been particularly unhelpful, because in most of the countries of the West vertical ties of patronage were at least as important and probably had more bearing on individual decisions about Urban [II’s] appeal” (pg 7). It’s a subject dear to me: one must understand the presuppositions of the people in any given era and how those presuppositions shaped their actions and behaviors, so to read that a class struggle dialectic may have been read (and written) back into the Middle Ages by major historians of the 19th and 20th century is not surprising but it is cautionary.

A prime example of this error also relates to the First Crusade: in our cynical age, we do not understand how a group of people, motivated mostly by piety, could agree to take up the Cross and recapture the Holy Land. And yet generations of Western Europeans did exactly that, hoping to recapture the land on which Christ was born, suffered, and died (they also turned against other Europeans in an attempt to “cleanse” their own land in later Crusades).

Other essays address the historiography of the crusades over time (Susan Edgington’s “Reviewing the Evidence,” Alan V. Murray’s “The Chronicle of Zimmern as a source for the First Crusade”), a few major players including Peter the Hermit (Colin Morris) and Alexius Comnenus (Jonathan Shepard), and how the principality of Antioch came into being (Thomas Asbridge).

This is not a book I would recommend for anyone with less than a sure footing of the known facts of the First Crusade and the essays are certainly less than comprehensive, but they do provide many jumping-off points for a person interested in issues related to the study of the event (or series of events) in history that came to be known as the First Crusade.

1 comment:

gg said...

you mention William Zajac in your review. I am an old friend of his trying to get back in touch with him. Do you know where he is now, teh last email I have from him is at SUniversity of Wales at Swansea.

Thanks for your help

Geoffrey Pingree