There were some nice locations and objects but felt they were a little buried under all of the detail about the author's family who travelled with himThere were some nice locations and objects but felt they were a little buried under all of the detail about the author's family who travelled with him. Was tempted to skim in places after a while, to be honest. ...more
Reading The First Crusade is a bit like watching a horror movie - starving Crusaders eat the rotting bodies of their enemies at Marrat al-Nu'man, scheReading The First Crusade is a bit like watching a horror movie - starving Crusaders eat the rotting bodies of their enemies at Marrat al-Nu'man, scheme in Macchiavellian fashion against one another, experience fantastical visions and find +5 Holy Lances buried under church floors, shoot their enemies' heads into cities by catapult, die of injuries sustained enduring trial by fire. Entire ships of new recruits appear - 1500 Danes, for instance - and within days they have died of plague, to a man. It's all a lot like the movie version of The Lord of the Rings, except it's much, much harder to tell the good guys from the orcs.
The book begins with an analysis of why over 100,000 people would, over two years, suddenly drop everything and go haring off across the world to storm a city they had never seen - and even more miraculously, keep at it in spite of disease, starvation, and constant peril of death or enslavement. Lots of work has previously suggested that Crusading fever was little more than a cynical attempt by younger sons and disenfranchised knights to engage in looting and land-grabbing. And of course this is true in part. But Asbridge argues that it is also true that as many entrenched and secure nobles and heads of families also took up the cross.
As to why, he makes a convincing case that "an authentically spiritual age" with its Christian message of pacifism, ascetism, and self-sacrifice was absolutely at odds with the vicious and violent realpolitik of medieval Europe. To survive and thrive, the knightly class could only engage in behaviour calculated to lead to damnation. The extremely controlling behaviour over sex, religious observances, and every single facet of life meant that this fear of Hell was something shared by the whole population, from the kings downwards. By synthesising warfare and religion into the concept of Holy War, the Church offered the spiritually haunted population a means of reconciling the opposing poles of their existence.
Not even the Pope could have foreseen how explosive this formulation would prove to be to people living in the constant shadow of damnation and under threat of an imminent apocalypse. Certainly the Greeks and Muslims didn't, and a sense of their shock and horror comes vividly alive.
If I had a criticism, it would be that I would have liked to have seen more material from the Muslim side and their strategic decisions - sources something beyond "HOLY CRAP THESE PEOPLE ARE NUTS!" as translated from medieval Arabic. Judging from the extract of his latest which I read late last year, he's way ahead of me on this score, so looking forward to starting on that soon. ...more
Signed with the Cross - "The Crusades" by Thomas Asbridge location: London mood: impressed music: Toxic Valentine - All Time Low I've frequently whinged aSigned with the Cross - "The Crusades" by Thomas Asbridge location: London mood: impressed music: Toxic Valentine - All Time Low I've frequently whinged about the rather dispiriting lack of anything resembling a proper popular cultural history of the Middle Ages. There's loads of great Tudor era material, but not much from earlier. I have my much-loved copy of The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer, which is an utter life-saver, but unfortunately it concentrates on the Fourteenth Century, and the character in Sleepwalker is actually from the Thirteenth. Furthermore, he's a Crusader; specifically a Knight Templar.
I had of course done some reading on the Crusades just out of general interest before I started writing Sleepwalker (they'd been a matter of personal fascination to me since I'd visited Jerusalem as a student), and I'd particularly enjoyed The New Knighthood by Malcolm Barber, the multi-volume History of the Crusades by Steve Runciman, and also the very populist but no less fun and interesting The Crusades by Alan Ereira and Terry Jones.
So I was happy to get a chance to look at Thomas Asbridge's forthcoming book The Crusades (published by Simon and Schuster, who very kindly set me up with access to an except), and I was very glad I bothered. It proved a fast and yet authoritative read and distinguished itself on two fronts - through the device of giving equal time and consideration to the Muslim view of events (Saladin's tactics are analysed and critiqued - it's clear that Asbridge feels that it's a downhill slide for the Islamic champion after Hattin) and the book also offers more than a passing treatment of what it might actually be like to be fighting in the Siege of Acre.
Though bound to be a straightforward military history by its very nature, it's actually spiked through with lively storytelling and wonderful anecdotes, such as the scandalised Muslim historian reporting on "300 young and lovely Frankish maidens" who arrive to earn a living servicing the Crusaders (and, it is implied, Muslims) besieging Acre, who "brought their silver anklets up to touch their golden earrings [and:] made themselves targets for men’s darts". Ingenious jihadis get a supply ship to the beleaguered city of Acre by shaving their beards off and filling the decks with pigs and crosses, fooling the Christian sailors manning the cordon. An emir caught transporting the hated and feared "Greek Fire" (which features in Sleepwalker, so I was delighted to see it) is captured trying to get into the city, and a Latin knight ‘stretched him out on the ground, emptying the contents of the phial on his private parts, so that his genitals were burned’.
But it's not all (admittedly grisly) fun and games: there is also the horror of starvation, disease, of being surrounded by rotting corpses which are constantly being replenished with fresh ones to the tune of up to 200 a day.
There's also a very human treatment of the main actors - Saladin is passionate, determined, but maybe a little too cautious; Richard the Lionheart is flamboyant, canny, and vain, but capable of ruthless acts of massacre. The use of evidence, historical context, and personal supposition is mingled convincingly and their characterisations drawn with an elegant economy of language. The political history is delivered with the same sprightly verve as the military history, and from the point of view of an interested amateur, this treatment worked well for me.
Apparently the word "crusader" comes from the Latin portmanteau crucesignatus - "signed by the Cross". One can forward social and political reasons that render the Crusades a matter of mere expediency, but those reasons on their own are insufficient - ultimately the genesis of the Crusades is ideological. Sadly, in the last couple of decades, the Crusades and their troubling questions of religious fanaticism and grasping political adventurism are closer in spirit to us than they have ever been. Asbridge's accessible and above all humane take on them is thus an entirely welcome approach to this very topical subject....more