The Crusades by Thomas Asbridge

Excellent resource for anyone with an interest in the period. Asbridge manages to give us an overview of each of the ‘numbered Crusades’ from the first to last, offering a full and detailed examination of the military, diplomatic and social aspects of ‘Holy War’ from both sides.

It’s not just a narrative on battles and sieges in the desert. Much of the text goes into examining the reasons behind crusading, both in its ordering by the Pope and the decision to ‘take the cross’ by so many European Christians. Through the course of the 150 core years of crusading history, we get a view into the changing motivations of Europe, from genuine religious enthusiasm, to monetary, to political.

When it comes to the actual Crusades themselves, Asbridge shows clearly and concisely why the ‘Latins’, as he calls them, were so intially succesful and why each and every subsequent expedition met with eventual disaster and failure. The internal politics and families of the four Crusader Kingdoms are given due attention in their turn, a fascinating slice of medieval history that goes largely unnoticed by the rest of the world.

But the focus is given near evenly to the other side. From the initial Islamic retreats, to the rise of Saladin and later the Mamelukes, Asbridge depicts the evolution of Muslim society and nations in the Middle East, from a loose band of separate states to a series of united empires. Particularly interesting is his analysis of Saladin’s motivations, about how religiously enthusiastic the great Muslin hero actually was.

When he does write about military affairs, Asbridge gives a good account. Of special note is his description of the siege of Acre during the Third Crusade, a crusading epic that exemplified the clash between Saladin and Richard the Lionheart, the two figures that are the champions of the text. It never gets boring, or too bogged down in one aspect or event, especially in the later stages. Those looking for a more minute examination should look elsewhere, but this is a great book for those looking for a general history.

Asbridge does give the vast majority of his account over to the First and Third Crusades, with the others taking up on a nearly equal amount of pages. The result is that much of the later history of ‘Outremer’ is rushed, especially its final years. Arguably, Asbridge spends too much time focusing on distant Islamic politics and powerplays which are not immediately relevant to the subject at hand.

The author, to his credit, walks the fine line between Christian and Muslim well, analyzing the various massacres and bloodbaths associated with each side fairly, without bias. And the books conclusion, where he the discusses the influence and impact the Crusades have had on subsequent history, all the way up to todays ‘War on Terror’, is well worth a read, a skillful attack on the way the period has been romanticized and used for propaganda purposes over the past eight hundred years. Of note is how President George W. Bush and Osama Bin Laden have used the period and the terminolgy when triumphing thier own causes.

It’s long and heavy, but it’s a great read. An excellent general text for anyone interested in the period.

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