The Crusades, c.1071-c.1291. – Review

The Crusades, c.1071-c.1291. – Review – book review

Malcolm Barber

The Crusades, c.1071-c.1291

Jean Richard Translated by Jean Birrell Cambridge University Press xiv + 516 pp 42.50 [pounds sterling] (hardback) 15.95 [pounds sterling] (paperback) ISBN 0 521 62369 3 (hardback) 0 521 62566 1 (paperback)

`JERUSALEM’, SALADIN IS SAID to have told Richard I, `is to us as it is to you. It is even more important for us, since it is the site of our Prophet’s nocturnal journey and the place where the people will assemble on the Day of Judgement. Do not imagine therefore that we can waver in this regard.’ Saladin kept his word. Richard was unable to regain the city which the Latins had lost in October 1187, following their catastrophic defeat at Hattin the previous July. Indeed, by the time of the Third Crusade (1189-92) both sides were fully aware of the significance of Jerusalem for each other. For the Christians, the success of the First Crusade in taking Jerusalem in 1099 had been founded on the sentiments of many thousands of men like Wicher the German, who had imagined that after the Crusade he would return to his home in the diocese of Utrecht. However, in the course of a battle he became convinced that he had seen the soul of his squire rise to heaven, and he determined that `death in defence of the Holy Sepulchre would be the most direct route to eternal bliss’. Ultimately both sides were driven by their systems of belief. During the Crusades political and economic considerations were frequently evident, but politicians and merchants can always cut a deal. The truth, on the contrary, is indivisible and ideologues cannot compromise.

These two books are therefore nicely complementary. Carole Hillenbrand’s intention is to explore only the Islamic perspective, but Jean Richard treats the Crusades `as a phenomenon closely integrated into European history with repercussions for the East.’ Hillenbrand wants to stress that the Crusades inflicted on the Muslims `profound and lasting psychological scars’, while Richard sees them `for the most part, marginal to the life of the easterners, who were only rarely aware of their specific character’. Both books are based upon deep knowledge of their subject matter: Hillenbrand deploys a great range of Muslim sources, many of which have not been translated into any western language; Richard’s synthesis reflects a lifetime of absorption in the subject which, in western historiography, has been the single most studied aspect of medieval life over the last generation.

Hillenbrand’s book covers many facets of the Muslim world from methods of warfare to attitudes towards Frankish women, but it is particularly valuable in defining the meaning and interpretation of jihad in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and in delineating the stereotypical Frank in Muslim historiography in relation to this. The frequent truces made by Muslim leaders, for example, must be seen as an integral part of a religion which makes a peace treaty with non-Muslims impossible, but which recognises that practical considerations forbid a state of perpetual war. Ibn Qudama, one of Saladin’s advisers, put forward the `public interest’ argument which allowed the leader to make a truce if he considered that it was of general benefit to Islam. It was not, however, desirable to enter into any close relations with the Franks, who are seen through Muslim eyes as emerging from the fog and perpetual winter of the unfavoured lands of the Ptolomaic sixth clime, and were consequently savage, treacherous, and filthy (both literally and metaphorically). They brought with them only pollution. Here is the context for Saladin’s elaborate washing of the Dome of the Rock with rose water after his recapture of Jerusalem.

Hillenbrand’s research reveals rich materials which she has shaped into a fascinating work. Many direct quotations, nicely integrated with pertinent illustrations on every page, bring the subject alive, stimulating that vital imaginative process so necessary for anyone who seeks to comprehend the cultural perceptions of other peoples. Yet readers should not take too literally her claim that `so much of the scholarship on the Crusades has been unabashedly Eurocentric’. Two of the most influential multi-volume histories of the Crusades in the twentieth century were written by an Islamicist (Cahen) and a Byzantinist (Runciman), while the monumental Wisconsin history devotes space to all the peoples involved in this complex history. Moreover, among British historians alone, for example, the work of Robert Irwin (on the Mamluks), Peter Jackson and David Morgan (on the Mongols), and Lyons and Jackson (on Saladin) is authoritative and unbiased. All make extensive use of sources in eastern languages.

It is therefore important to read Hillenbrand’s book in conjunction with that of Jean Richard. The treatment of the First Crusade is a case in point. Contrary to Hillenbrand, who tends to confirm the traditional view that the success of the Crusade stemmed from the weakness of Islam’s response, he suggests that the Turks and even the Egyptians were formidable and serious opponents. The Crusaders were certainly close to disaster at the battle of Dorylaeum (June 1097) when they faced the forces of the Seljuk, Kilij Arslan, while the Egyptians put up fierce resistance to the attack on Jerusalem and thereafter continued to exert pressure on the Franks until the murder of the vizier al-Afdal in 1121. They did not relinquish Ascalon until 1153. Moreover, only the loss of his fleet in a storm prevented the Almoravid leader, Yusuf ibn Tashfin, from invading in 1105 or 1106. The potency of the Turkish threat can be seen in the destruction of the Crusade of 1101, which the Seljuks and the Danishmends reduced to panic, starvation and despair, yet the Christian forces were quite as large as those which had succeeded in taking Antioch and Jerusalem.

These are two excellent books, essential reading for those who wish to understand not only the past but also the present Middle East, for today the evocation of `Crusade’ is potent propaganda. Indeed, for many Kurds it must be deeply ironic that Saddam Hussein chooses to present himself as the new Saladin, playing not upon Saladin’s Kurdish race, but on the coincidence that both originated in Tikrit.

Malcolm Barber is the author of the forthcoming The Cathars: Dualist Heretics in Languedoc in the High Middle Ages for Addison Wesley Longman.

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