Suzannah's Reviews > The First Crusade and the Idea of Crusading

The First Crusade and the Idea of Crusading by Jonathan Riley-Smith
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really liked it
bookshelves: crusades, history, non-fiction

This was an immensely helpful book, but only if you're already familiar with the history. Riley-Smith doesn't tell the story of the First Crusade, and if you want to know the story (which is stunning), read Thomas Asbridge's THE FIRST CRUSADE: A NEW HISTORY. In this book, Riley-Smith focuses on ancillary questions. Where did the idea of crusading come from? Why did it elicit such an overwhelming popular response? What was the experience of crusading like? What convinced the participants - enduring starvation, homesickness, humiliation, terror, and an unimaginable death toll - that God was on their side? And how did later historians rework the history of the First Crusade into their scheme of providential history?

This book was full of helpful detail for the historical novelist, and I was taking detailed notes throughout. For instance, Riley-Smith spends much time discussing the visions and astronomical phenomena experienced by the crusaders (some certainly spurious; others...well, you never know). But probably the most helpful single concept this book provided was the reason why the call to crusade was answered with such unprecedented enthusiasm.

We're talking about an entire generation of wealthy young men rushing to sell off their possessions and mortgage, sell, or give away their inheritances for the purpose of setting out on a highly uncertain military expedition toward an objective that was hundreds of miles away across enemy territory. Riley-Smith is the man who single-handedly blew up the myth that crusading was a way to relieve Western Europe of surplus younger sons, or to grab new lands in the east. It wasn't land, and it wasn't wealth.

Instead, Riley-Smith argues persuasively that it was because up until the late 1000s, knights were commonly rebuked by the church for their (very real) sins of anger, extortion, violence, and lust. The church's idea of the holy life, on the other hand, usually involved monasticism or something very similar. Crusading struck a chord because for the first time it offered knights and commoners a way to serve God in their ordinary occupation. Even after the crusade, historians like Guibert of Nogent were marvelling that the crusaders were "not only priests nor simply lettered men, but military men, some of them common people. There had been no previous hope that these would bear witness to their faith" (emphasis mine).

The First Crusade was an incredible story, but it began with ordinary people being told they could serve God by doing their job.

Ok, maybe not all that ordinary. There were definitely problems with the idea of crusading. But I think the church could be taking notes here.
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Reading Progress

August 11, 2015 – Shelved
August 11, 2015 – Shelved as: to-read
July 12, 2017 – Started Reading
July 12, 2017 – Shelved as: crusades
July 12, 2017 – Shelved as: history
July 12, 2017 – Shelved as: non-fiction
July 12, 2017 –
page 31
13.14% ""It is no exaggeration to say that 'liberation' was the word most frequently used by [Urban II] when justifying the need to crusade. In this, of course, he, a Cluniac monk, reflected the monastic idealism of the reformers, among whom there had developed an exaggerated notion of liberty." Got to watch those exaggerated notions of liberty..."
July 13, 2017 –
page 44
18.64% ""I Nivelo, raised in a nobility of birth which produces in many people an ignobility of mind...renounce for ever in favour of St Peter an oppressive behaviour resulting from a certain bad custom... I constantly maintained it in an atrociously tyrannical manner...this restless trouble is now stilled" - from a charter left by one knight on the eve of his departure on the First Crusade. I have something in my eye."
July 14, 2017 –
page 58
24.58% "Riley-Smith suggests, persuasively, that the reason the First Crusade caused such an enormous response among the knightly class was that after centuries of being told that being a warrior was contrary to Christianity, they were suddenly given a way to fight that was (supposedly) good for their souls. Huh. Fascinating."
July 17, 2017 –
page 73
30.93% ""Contemporaries were unanimously of the opinion that the crusade...was a very unpleasant experience indeed. 'My judgement is that this is unparallelled. There never had been among the princes of the secular world men who exposed their bodies to so much suffering, solely in the expectation of spiritual reward.' " The 1st Crusade was truly a trial by fire for those who were on it, which makes it good drama *rubs hands*"
July 18, 2017 –
page 91
38.56% ""The achievement of the crusaders becomes even more remarkable — in fact it is quite incredible - when one considers that soldiers already weakened by starvation, who certainly appreciated die importance of taking food before battle since they took care to give their horses extra rations, deliberately fasted before their more important engagements. One wonders how they managed to fight at all.""
July 24, 2017 –
page 105
44.49% "'Who could not marvel at the way we, a small people among such kingdoms of our enemies, were able not just to resist them but to survive?'"
July 25, 2017 –
page 120
50.85% ""The crusade was, in fact, the most startling among several expressions of a new and positive role for lay men and women for which the church reformers were seeking." - A major theme, and I believe an extremely important one."
July 26, 2017 –
page 135
57.2% ""Guy Trousseau, who had escaped over the walls of Antioch during the night of panic in June 1098, returned to France a broken man, exhausted by his journey and still unable to understand why he had given way to fear.""
July 29, 2017 – Finished Reading

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Alex That sums the book up really well, I think.


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