Liberation theology

The Oxford Illustrated History Of The Crusades
December 22, 1995

In the past 20 years there has been a truly astonishing growth in studies of the crusades. The consequence of all this work has been a notable shift away from the conventional concept of the crusades as a series of major expeditions, neatly numbered from one to seven, all aimed at capturing, securing or regaining the Christian holy places in Palestine. Instead, crusading has been portrayed as much more diverse both chronologically and geographically, entering people's lives in all centuries from the late 11th to the late 18th, and leaving its mark in places as far apart as Estonia and Granada. Moreover, there has been intense interest in the economic and cultural aspects of crusading, showing beyond doubt the profound effects that the crusading movement had upon the mental outlook of the peoples of western Christendom.

In these circumstances it is therefore essential to establish the historiographical context. The editor, Jonathan Riley-Smith, concentrates upon the work done since the late 1940s, as well as drawing attention to the more recent debate between the traditionalists, who prefer a quite narrow definition of the crusade centred on its role as a war aimed at defending the holy places in the East, and the pluralists, who offer a much more all-embracing role for the crusade in both time and space. It seems clear that the latter have done much to undermine the traditional view but, in their anxiety to demonstrate their point, have sometimes given the impression that medieval and early modern history consisted of little else. Riley-Smith rightly points out that a more nuanced view now prevails, and this is reflected in the more cautious assessments of the contributors to this volume.

It is now accepted that Jerusalem remained at the apex of a hierarchy of crusading priorities in the minds of most men in the 12th and 13th centuries and that, vigorous as crusading undoubtedly was in the 14th century, it then became much more concerned with specific objectives more directly related to the political and economic interests of its participants than had been some of the great expeditions of the past. There is, too, a recognition that interest in crusading did decline, at least from the 15th century onwards. Riley-Smith's survey of earlier work is necessarily more perfunctory, but nevertheless it would have been helpful if he had been able to give some space, for example, to the contributions of American historians like La Monte and Munro, who are less well-known to the present generation of students.

The 13 substantial chapters that follow provide a notably thorough and wide-ranging coverage, although the Albigensian crusades are an important omission.The collaborative nature of the book is an evident strength; good use is made of a range of specialisms from French literature to ecclesiastical art and architecture. These bring out the richness of the evidence available: Riley-Smith's use of charters, for example, shows how they can provide glimpses of the motivation and attitudes of crusaders who would otherwise be completely unknown, while Michael Routledge's analysis of crusade songs explains how they both reflected the aspirations of the noble class and the harsh realities of the tasks that they were undertaking. However, the format does have its disadvantages. Some of the contributors seem constrained by it, obliged to "cover the ground" within apparently tight word limits, so that they resort to paragraphs of stunning factual intensity. Robert Irwin's chapter on Islam and the crusades illustrates what can happen. He begins by creating a fascinating and sensitive picture of the world as seen from the Islamic side, which forms one of the best sections of the book, but about half way through he seems suddenly to realise that he is rapidly running out of road and ends in a potted history of dynasties and dates.

Simon Lloyd's chapter on the crusading movement between 1096 and 14 achieves the best balance in these circumstances, largely by avoiding the narrative approach and instead providing a neat analysis of promotion and preaching, personnel, finance, and practicalities. Marcus Bull on the origins of the crusades is perhaps the most fortunate in this respect, since his remit gives him more space to exercise his historical imagination. He is thus able to contribute a fine chapter which expertly evokes the world in which the first crusade found its roots.

However, this is an illustrated history, and for this to be effective the illustrations must be integrated with the text and not serve merely as decorative additions for the Christmas market. This generally works well. The chapters on art and architecture by Jaroslav Folda and Denys Pringle respectively achieve an excellent balance, while Anthony Luttrell's very precise and informative plans and maps in his chapter on the military orders after 1312 and Elizabeth Siberry's use of dramatic paintings of the crusades as seen by 19th-century romantics are both essential to the argument and elegantly demontrate the points.

Although in places this book contains more perspiration than inspiration, it is important in that it makes the results of the recent academic study of the crusades accessible to a wide section of students and the general public and succeeds in conveying that this is a living and developing subject, which has far from exhausted its potential.

Malcolm Barber is professor of history, University of Reading.

The Oxford Illustrated History Of The Crusades

Editor - Jonathan Riley-Smith
ISBN - 0 19 820435 3
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 436

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