What Were the Crusades?

September 17, 2009

Author: Jonathan Riley-Smith

Edition: Fourth

Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan

Pages: 136

Price: £14.99

ISBN: 9780230220690


A fourth edition, 32 years after the first, is a tribute to the merits of this concise and perceptive book. It is also timely because Islamic fundamentalism has given a contemporary significance to the Crusades and has made its study essential, not only to students of medieval history, but to those wishing to understand the tensions of the modern world. In his final chapter, Jonathan Riley-Smith touches on "this extraordinary and deadly twist to Crusade historiography".

The first Crusade began in 1096, more than 200 years after Islamic forces had been turned back from their furthest penetration into Western Europe, and its central aim was the retaking of Jerusalem. The regaining of territories occupied by the Muslims was an important feature of crusading for more than 500 years and has come to characterise it, but was far from its sole purpose. There were Crusades against pagan Wends, Balts and Lithuanians, against schismatic heretics such as the Cathars in southwestern France, the Orthodox Russians and Greeks and also against Catholic opponents of the papacy. Riley-Smith dismisses as anachronistic views of the Crusades as an early form of imperialism or as being economically motivated. The imperialist interpretation was given a flimsy credence by "para-crusading" (the use of crusade language) in the 19th century, which was taken literally by Sultan Abdulhamid II and other Muslims. Such views were taken up by Arab nationalists and then, ironically, transmitted to their opponents, the Islamists, who conceived of a global struggle with a "crusading" West.

A crusade was a penitential war that ranked as a pilgrimage and was authorised by the Pope as head of Christendom. The military orders - the Templars, Hospitallers and Teutonic Knights - were not political and economic corporations, as some earlier studies of the Crusades saw them, but orders of the Church. The pilgrimage dimension is important, as the military effectiveness of many Crusades was impeded by the number of crusaders who were not military men but clerics, women, elderly men or even, in 1212, children. The Crusades were seen not as wars of aggression, but as defence against aggression and a means of recovering Christian territory. This book is an important contribution to the scholarship of the Crusades and a clear introduction to this fascinating field. It is also of interest to general readers for the light it throws on the use and misuse of history in a world in which religion and "counter-crusading" has become such a dangerous force. A subject that was, 30 years ago, important to medievalist historians and interesting but arcane to others in our secular society has acquired a new relevance.

Who is it for? History students and anyone interested in what the Crusades were and their contemporary relevance.

Presentation: Clear, concise and eminently readable.

Would you recommend it? Most emphatically.

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