Historians and students of the Christian holy wars should read God’s War: A New History of the Crusades before they are a month older. With the insights of Jonathan Riley-Smith and ambition of Steven Runciman, Christopher Tyerman has written the definitive study needed for a long time now. It’s heavy reading at times, but well worth it and fun, a fascinating account of an alien era. I agree with the forecast that this will replace Runciman’s hostile and misleading (if elegant) classic from the 50s.
Tyerman draws on corrective scholarship, demolishing myths about crusading motives, which had nothing to do with colonialism. Most crusaders expected to return home, and they knew they would take heavy financial losses. Nor was the papacy driven by economic interests: Urban II exploited the Byzantine request for military aid by working a new idea of holy war into his reformist agenda. Alongside the pacifist movement, the abolishment of simony, concubinage, and lay investiture, the crusades represented an attempt to secure papal leadership and power over secular authorities. “The crusade is impossible to understand outside of this wider context of church reform.” So while it’s true that the First Crusade was a defensive war only in a superficial sense — Catholic territory wasn’t threatened, and the Latins were hardly motivated to help the Greeks out of altruism — there was no materialist agenda on the part of the papacy.
As oxymoronic as it sounds, the crusades were part of the reform movement stemming from puritan-radicals who took over the papacy in the 1040s. The Peace of God movement at home and holy wars abroad went in tandem, the former playing right into the inception of the latter. Christian knights had been living in contradiction, taught that violence was intrinsically evil even when necessary. What better way for the church to exploit this by channeling such aggression into a radically new cause which made warfare, for the first time ever, and under the right conditions, sacred? Crusaders were driven by religious zeal, the desire to protect holy places and secure their salvation; the papacy by reform and power-politics.
Tyerman also dispenses with lazy comparisons to the Islamic jihad. Unlike the crusade, the jihad was enjoined on the entire faith community (all able-bodied Muslims), and it was fundamental to faith, an actual sixth pillar of Islam. The crusade and jihad were both driven by militant zeal, but other commonalities are superficial.
The crusading phenomenon wasn’t born overnight. It evolved, and this book has the length and patience to illustrate how. The success of the First Crusade didn’t usher in a “new age” of crusading, especially since with the capture of Jerusalem there lacked an ongoing perceived threat. Enthusiasm waxed and waned according to volatile perceptions (it hit a major low between the Second and Third Crusades, during which time holy wars were often mocked and dismissed as foolish and wasteful). Crises like the loss of Edessa in 1144 and Jerusalem in 1187 called forth sudden massive responses, a couple of papal bulls, and minimal doctrinal guidance. Only after the Fourth Crusade, and thanks to the ambitious vision of Innocent III (1198-1216), did crusading really come into its own as an established institution and public devotion, with all the logistics formalized. Now the crusades touched the daily lives of Europe’s laity in the form of public processions, special prayers at mass, taxation, alms-giving — all of this reinforced by popular stories and songs.
Particularly refreshing is Tyerman’s analysis of historical figures, who come across as realistically complex. There’s no clear division of good and bad guys here. Bohemund of Taranto wasn’t the demon he’s made out to be. Raymond III of Tripoli, far from a wise and cautious tactician, proved treasonously incompetent, and his rival Guy of Lusignan has been overly maligned. The outrageous Reynald of Chatillon, usually perceived as destructive to his allies as much as his enemies, might have actually been good for the crusader kingdom if not for his sixteen-year absence in a Muslim cell. Tyerman challenges assumptions often made about these people, and you’re often unsure whether to dislike or warm to them — or both.
When you’ve finished this 1000+ page tome, you’ll feel like you’ve heard the papal bulls and gone on crusade yourself. It’s amazing how the more we learn about holy wars the more difficult it becomes to judge them. As Tyerman concludes, “the personal 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 virtue or sin. Rather its very contradictions spelt its humanity.”
UPDATE: See Andrew Criddle’s comments about the book.