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The best books on The Crusades

recommended by Guy Perry

The Briennes: the Rise and Fall of a Champenois Dynasty in the Age of the Crusades, c.950-1356 by Guy Perry

The Briennes: the Rise and Fall of a Champenois Dynasty in the Age of the Crusades, c.950-1356
by Guy Perry

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Once seen as a great romantic adventure, the Crusades tend to be viewed now as an early venture in Western imperialism. But, as the Oxford historian Guy Perry explains, there is nothing so simple about them. He chooses five books that get to the complex truth of the Crusades as historical phenomena.

Interview by Benedict King

The Briennes: the Rise and Fall of a Champenois Dynasty in the Age of the Crusades, c.950-1356 by Guy Perry

The Briennes: the Rise and Fall of a Champenois Dynasty in the Age of the Crusades, c.950-1356
by Guy Perry

Read

Before we get into the books that you’ve selected, could you explain what the Crusades were—intellectually/socially and in terms of war? Where did the idea of fighting for the God of love come from?

Defining the Crusades is a very difficult thing to do. I’ve been at a conference where a whole roomful of distinguished medievalists tried to come up with a working definition that everyone could accept. After several futile hours, we gave up in disorder. The truth is, though, that when we’re thinking about the Crusades, what we’re really picturing is the 200 years between 1095 and 1291. This covers the period from when the Westerners first took up arms to ‘liberate’ the Holy Land, to when they were finally driven out of it for good.

That said, though, there was much more to the movement than that. Crusading is often understood as something that only took place in the Middle East. In fact, though, there were crusades all over the place against other ‘enemies of Christ’. This included against the Muslims, again, in Spain and North Africa. There were also crusades against pagans in the Baltic. But crusading was also used within the Latin West itself, against both heretics and political opponents of the papacy. In short: crusading quickly stopped being something that just happened on the peripheries, and instead became a key feature of how Latin Christendom defined itself during the central Middle Ages.

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All of this begs the question of how far this could be justified—of how far one could fight for a God of love, peace and forgiveness. The idea that Christianity should not involve violence, war and bloodshed is, of course, very old. But in practice, though, that prohibition has mainly been observed in the breach. Very early on, a distinction was made between the love and forgiveness with which one should treat one’s personal opponents, and those matters which had to do with politics and the state. And in that sphere, force may well be necessary to preserve a public good.

This brings us to St Augustine’s ancient idea of a ‘just war’. According to the saint, a just war should be defensive (that is, it could be fought to recover lawful possessions); it should be proclaimed by a legitimate authority, such as the Pope; and it should also be fought with the right intent by all the participants. With the exception, perhaps, of the last, crusading was felt to meet all of these stipulations—and it added another: the necessity to defend the Church and the Faith. In this way, then, crusading could be regarded as a particular type of ‘holy war’, and therefore as an unimpeachable moral desideratum.

It’s the Pope who claims the right to declare a crusade. Is that accurate?

Yes—and, in fact, this isn’t challenged very much. This might bring us back to the vexed question of definition, but it is probably safe to say that a holy war can only really be regarded as a crusade if the pope proclaims it, identifies its objectives and grants a package of spiritual and legal privileges to the participants. Most famously, this includes either remission of penance or the full forgiveness of sins—a very attractive offer!

Let’s move on to the first book you’ve chosen to recommend on the Crusades, which is Christopher Tyerman’s God’s War. Why have you chosen it?

There are so many books that are simply called ‘the Crusades’, or variants on that theme (and the old classic, in English, is Sir Steven Runciman’s magnum opus). So there is a vast range of work to choose from if you wanted to find a basic guide to the movement. But God’s War tells you everything that you need to know. It isn’t just enormous and comprehensive. It’s also the product of a lifetime’s rumination on the subject. And I have to confess that I have a particular fondness for it, because the author is my old doctoral supervisor!

If I were to pick out what’s particularly good about God’s War, then it’s the fact that Tyerman refuses to accept simple answers to difficult questions. He sums it all up, very neatly, at the end.The internal decision to follow the Cross, to inflict harm on others at great personal risk, at the cost of enormous privations, at the service of a consuming cause, cannot be explained, excused or dismissed either as a virtue or a sin.” What he’s saying, in short, is that we need to accept the Crusades, in all their messy complexity, as something that is very real and very human.

I think Runciman, as a historian of Byzantium, saw the Crusades as the last barbarian invasion of the Roman empire, which he saw as surviving in Byzantium. He was therefore hostile. Does Tyerman have an angle on the Crusades like that, or does he avoid getting into these sorts of scraps?

I think what Tyerman is saying is that we need to be more dispassionate about it. We want to see a clear moral message, but there simply can’t be one for something like this.

Let’s move on to Robert Bartlett’s The Making of Europe: Conquest, Colonisation and Cultural Change, 950-1350. Perhaps you could explain why you chose this particular book.

I have to say that this is a rather odd choice. It doesn’t normally appear on reading lists for the Crusades, and I’m being slightly cheeky by putting it in. But what this book does do—and, in my view, much better than any of its rivals—is explain the Latin Western environment from which crusading emerged. It describes how the heartlands of Europe produced a warrior aristocracy: figures who can be described as ‘of slender means but with a big appetite.’ These warriors headed out from the centre to the peripheries to seize new lordships for themselves—and, in fact, this happened regardless of the faith that was held in some of these locations.

“These warriors actually made the whole of the Latin world much more homogenous”

What’s interesting about all this is that, in the course of the process, these warriors actually made the whole of the Latin world much more homogenous. By the end of the process, Latin Christendom had far more in common than it did at the start: not just in terms of characteristic religious practices, but also in spheres like government, warfare and trade. Bartlett is particularly strong on the subject of naming patterns. Why is that, across the whole of Europe, you find people called things ‘William’, ‘Robert’ and ‘John’? It is because these names became the standard currency of the medieval West, spreading as the region became much more homogenous. In short: this book has shaped my own studies much more than any other work. I’m really interested in social and geographical mobility—both up and down the ladder and across vast distances. I was never able to explain very much of this before I looked at this book, and that’s why I recommend it so highly.

When you say ‘the centre’, what are you talking about geographically—north-eastern France and the Low Countries?

 You’re certainly putting me on the spot there! One of the principal trends in medieval studies, over the course of the last thirty years, has been to move away from an excessive French focus—from the idea that France was somehow ‘the norm’, and everything else was wrong. But I suppose I still believe in an old ‘Frankish’ core: the territories of the old empire as run by Charlemagne, which included what is now France, the Low Countries, Germany and northern Italy. That’s the Western European bloc, and it was from there, more than anywhere else, that warriors pushed out into regions like Spain, the British Isles, southern Italy and Sicily, the Baltic and the Holy Land.

And in the Baltic, were those wars crusades that imposed Christianity?

Some of them were. The crucial point to remember is that some form of violence was almost always happening along Latin Christendom’s frontiers. Quite often, these forms of violence could have a highly significant religious and/or ideological tinge. It is these more loaded encounters that could most easily be converted into full-scale holy wars or crusades. But they remain very complex, for all that. For example, the crusades in the Baltic—which, at times, became almost genocidal—were simple opportunities for plunder, and culture wars, religious wars, all at the same time. In other words, it was possible to try to get rich, and promote Germanisation and Christianity, all as a sort of package. Needless to say, though, it wasn’t always comfortable how those various elements held together.

Wasn’t that roughly what Charlemagne had been doing, 200 years earlier?

You’re exactly right. One of the key critiques that some scholars make of this book is that Bartlett’s starting date is the year 950. A lot of historians would say that the processes that you are describing are simply what Charlemagne was doing, 150 years earlier, so as to build his own empire. The basic message—which the book says explicitly at its close—is that Europe was not just the driver of one of the world’s great processes of conquest, colonisation and cultural change. It was also the product of one. But it is certainly arguable that the latter process began well before 950.

Let’s move on to Carole Hillenbrand’s The Crusades: Islamic Perspectives. I imagine that it’s largely because there are significant Muslim populations in Europe, these days, that we think rather differently about the Crusades, at least at a non-academic level. A sense of ‘us and them’ doesn’t really work anymore. What does this book say?

For an amazingly long time, it was normal to view the Crusades, almost entirely, from a Western perspective. Thankfully, that viewpoint is now completely exploded. In fact, we need to examine the crusades to the Holy Land from both a Greek and an Islamic angle too. If I’d had space, I would have chosen a book on the Byzantine perspective—but if I’ve only got the opportunity to have one, then I’d go for the Muslim angle.

“when you get to places like Iraq and Iran, the Crusades were really not that important”

There has been quite a rash of books trying to examine what the Crusades looked like to the Islamic world. The reason that I picked Hillenbrand is, quite simply, because it’s a classic. It covers the whole period of the struggle. It shows how the Muslims saw ‘the Franks’, and all the religious and ethnic stereotypes that were being bandied about during this long period of cultural interaction. It assesses what daily life was actually like in the Crusader States—where, on the one hand, you could be enemies on the battlefield, but you could also meet in the souk or in the bathhouse. Hillenbrand also examines how Muslim armies fought, what armour and weapons they used, their fortifications, and so on and so forth. And, of course, she looks at the biggest question of all: what all this meant for how the West viewed the Islamic world, and vice versa.

Does she come out with a view as to how the Crusades changed the Islamic world, or the Islamic Levant?

Hillenbrand tries hard not to give simplistic answers. To some extent, the West and the Muslim world are represented as two self-confident cultures—who look at each other, don’t much like what they see, and therefore connect rather less than we might think. But on the other hand, though, an increasingly ‘globalised’ Crusades scholarship is saying that we should view these two spheres as actually rather similar. The warrior aristocracy, on either side, operated under quite closely related assumptions about how one should live, rule and fight, and how religion should affect what you do. But I would also bring out a point that, in my view, Hillenbrand minimises rather too much. This is the simple fact that the Westerners never actually got all that far into the Islamic world. (The Mongols are the ones who actually overrun the Middle East, doing enormous damage in the process.) On the one hand, then, the Crusades seem to be crucial in poisoning relations between the West and Islam. On the other hand, though, you could certainly argue that at the time, at least, the crusaders were little more than an irritant to the Muslim sphere. The Westerners could preoccupy warlords in Syria, and affect rulers in Egypt and what is now Turkey—but when you get to places like Iraq and Iran, the Crusades were really not that important.

Weren’t the Crusader States carved out of much larger political entities? 

In a way. The Seljuq Turks had recently conquered most of the Middle East, but their united empire had already begun to break into fragments. One of the most interesting consequences of this is the simple fact that government by an alien minority was really quite normal in eleventh- and twelfth-century Syria. (At this particular juncture, most of the ruling class were Turks, but there were also Kurds, Armenians and so on and so forth—and some of them, at least, were quite suspect in religious terms.) So there is scope to argue that the Franks were not quite as shocking as one might think: that they were simply another foreign ruling class to go alongside the others. This is a particularly significant point because, with the benefit of hindsight, we assume that the Crusader States were always doomed to fail. But when you actually look at the history of the Islamic world, there were very long periods when a Turkish ruling class, for example, stayed in control over vast subject populations.

Right up until the end of the First World War.

Exactly.

Let’s go on to the next one, which is Chronicles of the Crusades, edited by Caroline Smith. These are two contemporary sources, right?

Yes—Geoffrey of Villehardouin’s The Conquest of Constantinople and Jean of Joinville’s The Life of Saint Louis. The rationale for including this book is that, at some point, you’ve got to hear the original voices. I wouldn’t want to recommend five works on the Crusades without giving you the opportunity to read what a crusader actually wrote. And if there is a medieval chronicle that stands out for being approachable, then it’s Joinville’s. He’s writing in French—for a lay, rather than a clerical audience—and it suddenly becomes real and alive in a way that just doesn’t happen with earlier Latin writers. It is Joinville, for instance, who tells us that when he was leaving his castle to go on crusade, he couldn’t bring himself to look back. One of the children that he was leaving behind was just a few weeks old. You don’t hear that sort of thing in many other sources. Similarly, Joinville gives us asides, anecdotes and funny stories. He reveals, for example, that when the crusaders were encamped together at Sidon, the Count of Eu used to play practical jokes. The Count had a little catapult made and used to fire stones whilst the crusaders were eating, causing comedic havoc on the dinner table. He also got hold of a small bear and sent it into Joinville’s camp, where it killed some of the chickens. All this is heavy medieval humour that has not aged well, but it was clearly very tension-relieving at the time.

In The Life of Saint Louis, does St Louis emerge as an interesting character?

Joinville is explicitly writing as part of the formal canonisation process for St Louis (Louis IX of France). So there is a clear mission statement: to show that the king was an admirable person. But it’s not a completely positive portrait. In fact, there are moments where Joinville is really quite critical. For instance, when Louis declares his intention to go on his second crusade in 1267, Joinville clearly doesn’t think it’s a good idea this time—and, in the end, the future chronicler stays at home. In this way, then, you’re not just getting Joinville’s reminiscences of Louis’s first crusade. You’re also receiving a remarkable insight into France in the mid-thirteenth century, as well as a portrait of an outstanding king. And—in this book as a whole—you also get Geoffrey of Villehardouin’s The Conquest of Constantinople: his account of the Fourth Crusade.

This was the disastrous 1204 crusade?

Yes. This expedition culminated in the capture and sack of Constantinople, which is really the most shocking event that took place in all the Crusades. That’s especially the case when you bear in mind the fact that the movement had originally started so as to save the Greeks from the Turks. And then, a hundred years or so later, it’s the West that destroys Byzantium, mashing Constantinople into a pulp.

Is Villehardouin trying to excuse it? Or does he realise it’s shocking?

Well, there is a lot going on here. On the one hand, there has long been a schism between the Latin West and Greek Orthodox Churches—and this can be exploited to justify what happened in 1204. Even more than that, though, Geoffrey presents the Fourth Crusade as a great chivalric enterprise, driven by honour. And, of course, there is another key point, which is that the ultimate legitimator is success. If you capture a great city like Constantinople, which has never been seized by a non-Greek army before, then it is quite clear—to most medieval thinkers—that God is on your side.

Does Villehardouin describe the sack of the city?

Yes—and what is most fascinating is that you can compare his description with that of a contemporary Greek historian. In his O City of Byzantium, Niketas Choniates gives us a quite different view. What everyone can agree on is that the sack was truly horrific. On the one hand, though, we have Geoffrey trying to defend it as the legitimate outcome of a long and complex process, driven ultimately by chivalric ideals like honour. On the other hand, though, we have Niketas, who clearly thinks that this event marks the end of civilisation as we know it.

Let’s move on to Seven Myths of the Crusades. Tell us a bit about this book.

Again, this is a slightly odd recommendation. I know that quite a few of my colleagues have been a bit sneery about this book—and, interestingly, I couldn’t find a copy in any academic library at Oxford. But this is what people need, far more than historians disappearing into their own ivory towers. The public needs scholars to actually engage with the questions that people really have about the Crusades. Should the First Crusade be seen as an unprovoked attack on Islam? Should crusading be seen as colonialism, or as the first stage in Western imperialism? What is the truth behind all the myths and legends about the Templars? So I would recommend this book precisely because it doesn’t try to sidestep those questions. Instead, it engages with them head-on.

With the Children’s Crusade, my recollection from school, when I was about eight years old, is that a whole bunch of enthusiastic children went off to Marseilles, where they got sold into slavery. Is that roughly right?

Yes, that’s more or less correct. They weren’t quite children: more ‘youths’, often from poorer backgrounds. And not all of them ended up being sold into slavery. There were also two later expeditions known as the ‘Shepherds’ Crusades’. Again, it’s not quite the right label: it basically refers to ‘yokels from the countryside.’ What we can really see, through all of these developments, is the strength of the basic message that the West ought to be making a much more concerted effort to recover Jerusalem. This has percolated down, deep into society, and the poor and humble are saying to the ruling classes, ‘this is the ultimate goal—and yet you have failed, again and again.’ It’s rather like the message of young climate change activists today. And there’s an implied idea as well: perhaps God will bless the Children and the Shepherds with success, in a way that He has not permitted to their betters. Needless to say, though, He doesn’t: you can’t win a war with a band of young people naively hoping for the best.

What about anti-Judaism? My recollection, from undergraduate history, was that there were pogroms and that kind of thing—but that, actually, some bishops were quite helpful in shielding Jews from the mob.

Yes, that’s exactly right. Crusading isn’t the foundation of Western antisemitism, but it certainly takes it and builds on it. It isn’t an accident that when a crusade has been called, and when people have been whipped into hysteria against the enemies of Christ, someone can always say, ‘but there are some here on our doorstep’—and then point at local Jewish communities. But the Church’s line is normally very clear. Jews living in peace, within Christian territories, cannot be a legitimate target for Holy War. It’s a bit upsetting for us because we wish that the Church would have said this on humanitarian grounds. But that isn’t the fundamental reason. If anything, the principal point is that Jews should continue to live amongst gentiles in misery and subjection, so as to display the ultimate truth of Christian revelation. So it’s not that nice, I’m afraid.

And what about the Templars? Isn’t the myth about them that they descended into a state of almost late-Roman orgiastic decadence? Is there anything in that?

 There are so many myths and legends about the Templars—I don’t even know where to begin! I guess we could talk about anything from Sir Walter Scott and The Da Vinci Code to the computer game, Assassin’s Creed (and don’t even get me started on the supposed link with the Holy Grail). In fact, I’m one of those boring people who thinks that the truth is much more interesting than the myths and legends. A Military Order is a fascinating notion: the idea that you could blend religious vows with being a knight. If you’ve watched lots of Jackie Chan movies, then you think that the idea of ‘fighting monks’ is really quite normal. But in the West, in the early twelfth century, you were blending opposites, producing what was meant to be the ultimate holy warrior.

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There is, of course, much more to the Military Orders than that. We could also talk about the fact that they were international in scope, building up portfolios of estates across Europe so as to help save the Holy Land. But the fascinating point about the Templars really comes from what happened after the mainland Crusader States collapsed in 1291. At that juncture, the Order was basically treated as the scapegoat for everything that had gone wrong. The powerful French king was after their money too, and so the Templars were brought down amidst the (now standard) medieval accusations of sodomy, heresy and witchcraft. From there, it’s quite easy to see where all the subsequent conspiracies and myth-mongering have come from.

Interview by Benedict King

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Guy Perry

Guy Perry

Guy Perry is a British historian and Fellow at Keble College, Oxford. His research focuses on social and geographical mobility amongst the French-speaking aristocracy in the age of the Crusades. His publications include John of Brienne: King of Jerusalem, Latin Emperor of Constantinople, c.1175-1237 and The Briennes: the Rise and Fall of a Champenois Dynasty in the Age of the Crusades, c.950-1356. He is also the Principal of the Middlebury College–CMRS Oxford Humanities Program.

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Guy Perry

Guy Perry

Guy Perry is a British historian and Fellow at Keble College, Oxford. His research focuses on social and geographical mobility amongst the French-speaking aristocracy in the age of the Crusades. His publications include John of Brienne: King of Jerusalem, Latin Emperor of Constantinople, c.1175-1237 and The Briennes: the Rise and Fall of a Champenois Dynasty in the Age of the Crusades, c.950-1356. He is also the Principal of the Middlebury College–CMRS Oxford Humanities Program.