Competing Voices from the Crusades: Fighting Words

October 16, 2008

This book is an interesting and ambitious concept, aiming to present Latin Christian, Muslim and Byzantine voices from the Crusades and, to quote the editors, to allow readers "to determine for themselves how such events were interpreted and understood by the participants". A number of these extracts have appeared elsewhere, but often in specifically Crusading or Muslim-centred collections; to bring them together is a sensible move.

At times the results are particularly effective; most notably the section on Frederick II's controversial recovery of Jerusalem in 1229. Notwithstanding his status as an excommunicate, Frederick achieved by diplomatic means what great warriors such as Richard the Lionheart had failed to accomplish. The triumphant emperor revelled in God's apparent blessing of his cause while his political opponents deplored the fact that he had left some areas of Jerusalem, such as the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa mosque (collectively known to the Christians as the Temple complex), in Muslim hands. The reaction in the Muslim world was as polarised and intriguing; one writer offers the pragmatic calculations behind the Sultan al-Kamil's decision to hand over many of Saladin's hard-won conquests, but another eyewitness records the rage and indignation in other quarters: "Shame on the Muslim rulers! At such an event tears fall, hearts break with sighs, grief rises up ..." With each of these perspectives presented in the book, the episode is given a splendid multidimensional feel.

The excerpts of primary source text are introduced by brief scene-setting comments and the entire collection is prefaced by a thoughtful and tersely argued summary of modern views of the Crusades. It also includes something usually ignored in textbooks - an excellent outline of Christian-Muslim conflict before the Crusades. The coverage of the major crusading expeditions is supplemented by lively sections on "Life on Crusade" (including the role of women), "Life in the Crusader States" and, most welcome to university tutors looking for teaching materials, a new translation by Professor Muldoon of sections of Gratian's Decretum (1140) and the 13th-century Decretales, both revealing papal theories of religious war as well as dealing with some of the practical issues they raise.

Clearly every selection of source material has an element of editorial subjectivity; given the stated aims of this collection, there are, however, some unhelpful lacunae, most notably on the Muslim side. While the ideas behind the First Crusade are given due space, the rise of jihad, the Muslim holy war, is largely ignored. No text here gives an outline of its conceptual basis, although several sources, such as the sermon of the Damascene preacher, al-Sulami, exist in translation. Any understanding of Saladin's success has to recognise the spiritual importance of Jerusalem to Islam and to register how he used this in his efforts to draw together the Muslim Near East. Furthermore, there is a marked lack of guidance to the source material - again, particularly for the Islamic writers. The style and purpose of authors such as Usama ibn Munqidh and Imad ad-Din need some explanation and context, especially for the student and general audiences this book targets. In the case of Usama, it is easy to repeat his splendidly entertaining tales of Frankish stupidity, but in reality he was composing a didactic piece and often provided counterbalancing examples of Christians' more positive attributes. Likewise, the extraordinarily imaginative sexual metaphors of Imad ad-Din are primarily a literary art form rather than a genuine attempt to catalogue real events.

The use of newer translations (many employed here are very outdated and chosen for reasons of copyright and expense, I suspect), a more up-to-date bibliography of secondary writings and far better proofreading (map 2 is a disaster) could sharpen this useful collection into a much more rewarding and modern volume.

Competing Voices from the Crusades: Fighting Words

Edited by Andrew Holt and James Muldoon. Greenwood World Publishing. 328pp, £30.00. ISBN 9781846450112. Published 30 June 2008

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