Fighting for the Cross: Crusading to the Holy Land

November 13, 2008

In 1267, King Louis IX of France asked his old comrade and biographer John of Joinville to accompany him on another crusade to the East. More than 20 years before, Joinville had gone with Louis to Egypt, sharing with him hunger, disease, defeat and Turkish captivity as well as the spiritual exhilaration of visiting the Holy Land after their release. But while the pious king again went East, dying outside the walls of Tunis in 10, Joinville declined to take the cross a second time, pleading that he needed to stay at home to look after his dependants. Unlike the king, but in common with the vast majority of crusaders, his one great experience in the East was enough for one lifetime.

In contrast to the spate of narrative histories of the Crusades that has poured from commercial and academic publishers in the past decade, Norman Housley's new book is the first comprehensive attempt to describe this great experience as it was lived and endured by the hundreds of thousands of men and women who went to liberate or defend the Holy Land between Pope Urban II's first call to crusade in 1095 and the fall of the last Christian-held city in Palestine in 1291. He covers crusaders from the prominence of Louis and Joinville all the way down to anonymous non-combatants.

Individual experience is approached on two levels. First, there are the practical and pragmatic aspects: the ceremonies of making a crusade vow and taking the cross, the raising of finance, the arduous and hazardous journey to the East by land or sea, the constant problems of food supply, and the realities of armed confrontation with the Muslim enemies. One is repeatedly amazed at how armies were able to reach the Holy Land without any central organisation, finance or provisioning, while the most stringently organised expedition of all, the crusade of Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, simply fell apart after his accidental death in 1190.

Yet even more illuminating is Housley's exposition of the mentalities of crusading, which takes in a whole range of factors such as competing religious and secular motivations and expectations of behaviour, the fascination for and inspiration given by relics, and the confrontation of Westerners with the Saracen enemy and the great cities and civilisations of Byzantium and the East. Housley also explores two still little-studied issues: the question of what conditions were necessary for a crusade vow to be regarded as fulfilled, and the ways in which memories of crusading were carried forward and modified by later generations.

Housley is keen to allow the sources to "speak for themselves", and he offers a vast range of testimony from eyewitnesses. Some, like Joinville, had access to the councils of the great and good, but others offer their own varied perspectives: the scholarly monk Guibert of Nogent, scornful of simple crusaders and rival writers, or the obtuse French knight Robert of Clari, who did not fully comprehend how the Fourth Crusade came to be diverted to Constantinople, but had a good appreciation of the amount of booty it captured; however, we hear too little from the Muslim writers who might have given a truly 360-degree perspective.

The arguments and conclusions presented here are well founded on the latest scholarly research and clearly documented in the endnotes. It is frustrating, however, that the table of contents does not list the many specific subsections, which are the real key to using the book, alongside the rather opaque chapter titles, for this rich tapestry of crusading experience offers dozens of starting points for further detailed investigation, while also constituting an innovative and informative exposition of crusading in its own right.

Fighting for the Cross: Crusading to the Holy Land

By Norman Housley. Yale University Press, 357pp, £25.00. ISBN 9780300118889. Published 26 August 2008.

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