An avowadly pluralist account takes in both Christian and Muslims viewsby Josh Ireland / September 4, 2019 / Leave a comment
This new history of the Crusades by historian Dan Jones features an astonishingly high body count, and a cast of characters that range from intrigue-addicted courtiers to homicidal maniacs and religious eccentrics—Margaret of Beverley, for one, went to war with a saucepan for a helmet.
But this is far more than just a gorefest for fans pining for Game of Thrones. Jones’s decision to write a “tableau history,” in which each chapter centres on the experience of a single protagonist, neatly sidesteps the danger of his story becoming a bewildering succession of viziers, castles and battles. This is just as well, because Crusaders extends beyond the Middle East—both the reconquest of Spain, and the conversion of Baltic pagans were legitimate ambitions for those wishing to take the cross.
Jones is adept at teasing out the array of motivations that propelled the crusaders on an arduous, often harrowing, journey to an uncertain, violent destination. He is also acute on the ways in which pope after pope not only legitimised, but actively incentivised, blood-letting. And we see how the weaponisation of the notion of crusading, so that it became a tool for pursuing political conflicts within Christendom, ultimately led to its debasement.
While this is an avowedly pluralist account in which equal weight is given to the experiences of Christians and Muslims (and it’s very good on how fractious and unstable their coalitions were), Jones does not have much to say about the texture of life inside the Crusader states. I would also have been interested to know more about the economic, cultural and political impact this sustained entanglement with the Middle East had on Christian Europe.
These are minor quibbles. Steven Runciman wrote that “the romantic story of the Crusades was an epic written in blood.” Jones has written an epic of his own here, as complex as it is compelling.
Crusaders: An Epic History of the Wars for the Holy Lands by Dan Jones (Head of Zeus, £25)