Richard Warren Field is the author of The Swords of Faith, a novel told from the points of view of Richard the Lionheart, and Saladin. Visit his website here and his blog here. Thanks for guest posting, Richard!
Two new major releases about the crusades came out within about a month of each other earlier this year. My thanks to Susan Higginbotham for inviting me on her blog to discuss these books, books about one of the most significant and controversial aspects of the medieval period.
The two books are Holy Warriors by Jonathan Phillips and The Crusades by Thomas Asbridge. The questions that surely come to mind immediately are: “Two books? One is over 400 pages and the second over 600 pages? Please, please tell us, which one should we choose?” The answer is that if you are interested in this subject, you should choose both. (Sorry—yes, both.) Of course, there is some overlap. But there is much material unique to one and not the other; the books complement each other and help reinforce mastery of the subject.
Holy Warriors/Jonathan Phillips. Jonathan Phillips will be familiar to watchers of the History Channel, where he has contributed to their documentaries. I found his contributions to the recent documentary about Robin Hood, offered in cooperation with the director and some of the actors in the recent Ridley Scott movie “Robin Hood,” to be consistently insightful and accurate, in contrast to some of the silly statements made by actor Russell Crowe. In his book, Phillips follows the conventional chronology, but takes some detours into less traveled subjects. He writes an extended chapter about Queen Melisende subtitled “A Woman of Unusual Wisdom and Discretion.” She was a woman who successfully exercised power at a time when women were considered to be the subordinate gender. She showed the talent and ability to enforce her will, with objectives and strategic thinking often superior that of the males who contested her ideas. This chapter elevates Queen Melisende into Eleanor of Aquitaine territory (a generation or two before Eleanor); Queen Melisende might very well make a great subject for a historical novel! (Actually, my research at Amazon shows that Judith Tarr’s Queen of Swords may have covered this territory back in 1997. But, who says there can't be more than one?)
Phillips also spends time offering a more nuanced look at the Fourth Crusade, the “crusade” that ended with western Christians sacking Constantinople and taking control of the Byzantine Empire. This is often portrayed as one of the most shameful episodes of the crusades period, an example of the mercenary bloodlust of western Christians run amuck. Philips takes the time to detail the facts which reveal a series of sad miscalculations, along with some questionable characters making promises they could not possibly keep (“Prince Alexius,” pretender to the Byzantine imperial throne, is the chief culprit meeting this description, though his promises should no doubt have been better scrutinized by the western Christians relying on them). After reading this account, we understand how such a strange and unfortunate outcome evolved, and we discover some of the vilified do not deserve all of the enmity history has heaped on them.
After his conventional chronological treatment of the subject, Phillips spends the last fourth of the book looking at how the crusades, and the crusading concept, moved through history to the present day. A highlight of the material is a balanced, informative discussion of “jihad” and its evolution as a religious and political/military concept.
The Crusades/Thomas Asbridge. Asbridge offers us a comprehensive, smoothly written historical narrative that captures the important details and strives to avoid extremes of interpretation. How does Asbridge accomplish this in a mere 600-plus pages when the same task took Steven Runciman three volumes, and more recently Christopher Tyerman nearly 1000 pages? First, Asbridge stays almost completely in the Middle East, and within the period between
1095 and 1291. Other books address the crusading concept transplanted to Europe (the crusade against the Cathars during the early 13th Century and the campaigns of the Teutonic knights in eastern Europe during the 13th and 14th Centuries), and at “crusades” declared after 1291—Asbridge does not. He also spends little time on the Fourth Crusade. (This is an example of how these books complement each other—Phillips spends considerable time on this, as I discuss above.) But that is consistent with his approach, as none of the action in the Fourth Crusade occurred in the Middle East, and in its essence, this involved an internal Christian conflict, not a conflict between Muslim and Christian forces. Also, Asbridge spends the bulk of the book on the first three crusades, with excellent narrative histories of all of them, including the story of Richard the Lionheart and Saladin, a subject near and dear to my heart, as my recently released novel The Swords of Faith is about that confrontation.
What Asbridge offers is a clear, easy-to-follow storyline for these events, distilled from the many source materials available. He also strives to express balanced interpretations of events. He gives us a picture of Saladin that retains Saladin’s admirable qualities while arguing against his over-glorification. He offers the idea that Saladin did not become a committed religious warrior until after a serious illness in late 1185/early 1186, an illness bringing him so close to death that he dictated his will. And Asbridge argues against the current depictions in the popular culture of Richard the Lionheart as a militarily adept bloodthirsty brute who was otherwise unsophisticated. He offers clear evidence of Richard’s abilities beyond super-warrior.
So the choice should be to buy and read both of these books. That’s what I did, and I found that both books, with the insightful excursions of Jonathan Phillips in Holy Warriors, and the comprehensive, flowing narratives of Thomas Asbridge in The Crusades brought me entertaining insights into a historical period that is still invoked today by people involved in the most pressing issues of our times.