The Crusades: The Authoritative History of the War for the Holy Land
Why this book is relevant today - too many people today seek to spin some of the events of the 20th and 21st century as a continuation of the Crusades. In their eyes, Islam and Christianity have always fought each other and always will until one eradicates the other. What this book shows is that in reality, our lack of knowledge of the Crusades allows a person to make any conclusion they wish. If you take one thing from this review, be very suspicious any time you hear someone invoking the Crusades to make a point, whether that's idiots like Osama or alt-right goons adopting Crusader imagery and battle cries.
What I liked about this book - the author is a great storyteller. He doesn't dwell too long on any one aspect of these wars and keeps the pacing quick by shifting between the Christian and Muslim narrative. He doesn't draw any strong conclusions about anyone or any event and takes care to cite his sources wherever possible. For example, Saladin is often praised for having captured Jerusalem bloodlessly, though the author shows through primary sources that this was not his original intention. As someone who had a vague idea about Saladin thanks to Age of Empires (video game) and Kingdom of Heaven (film), it was interesting to see how different Saladin was in this book. Saladin's own propaganda played an important role in the way he is perceived today.
The author does not shy away from describing in vivid detail the horrors of war, of dysentry, of scurvy, of starvation and cannibalism. He rarely glorifies the fighting, which in my opinion, is the right way to portray it
What I disliked - Its unfortunate that over 2 centuries of Crusading, there is precious little in the way of military skill displayed, apart from a couple of occasions like Hattin. As someone who enjoys reading about military tactics and strategy I was disappointed. Books I've read before this featured military geniuses like Napoleon, Julius Caesar, Hannibal Barca, Scipio Africanus and Belisarius and its sad to say that no one in this book comes close.
The other part is that most Crusades after the first one follow the same broad template -
- Disaster strikes in the Holy Land, with either a battle or a city lost.
- The Pope preaches a new Crusade in France, Italy and possibly Germany
- Lots of people sign up
- Many of them die along the way
- They make some stupid decisions, like inadequate provisions, or making enemies of the wrong people
- Many of the survivors die of disease/starvation
- The campaign comes to an ignominious end.
- Everyone agrees that it failed because of "sins"
Reading this template gets a bit repetitive after a while, though I can hardly blame the author for the stupidity of other people. Nor can I blame him for the in-fighting, superstition, selfishness, duplicity and other myriad inadequacies of all the people featured in this book, barring three or four of them.
Overall I'd say this is a pretty good book. If you want to read about the Crusades, this is what you should pick up.