The Crusades: The War for the Holy Land by Thomas Asbridge

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The Crusades: The War for the Holy Land by Thomas Asbridge

Category: History
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A comprehensive account of the nine crusades, or holy wars, between the Christian and Muslim world between 1095 and 1291, by an acknowledged expert on the subject. It concludes with some interesting insights on their legacy in the modern world.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 784 Date: January 2010
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
ISBN: 978-0743268608

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The word 'Crusades' has been misappropriated and often used in various other contexts over the passing years. In their original meaning they were a series of holy wars during the medieval era between the Christian and Muslim world, fighting for dominion over the Holy Land between 1095 and 1291 as the defenders of western civilization formed expeditions travelling across the face of the known world from Europe, their sole aim being to conquer and defend an isolated swathe of territory centred on Jerusalem.

This meticulously-researched saga begins with an examination of Europe's burgeoning political and military power in the eleventh century, its dreams of development and expansion, and an inevitable clash with the Arab-Islamic world. The onward march of Christianity made conflict likely sooner or later, especially when the papacy considered that the only way to break the stranglehold then enjoyed by Kings and Emperors over the church was for the Pope to recognize his God-given right to supreme authority. If blood had to be shed in the realization of this lofty aim, so be it.

The catalyst was Pope Urban II, whose call for all Christians to join in a righteous war against the Turks led to the first crusade and the siege of the city of Jerusalem. It was captured by the Christians but later regained by the Muslims, thus setting a pattern for the next two centuries. During that time a succession of European leaders continued to strike a blow for Christendom, with varying degrees of success. There were appalling episodes of cruelty on both sides. Mass torture, wholesale executions (including those of innocent women and children), and decapitated heads mounted on spikes around the city, or even thrown over city walls, in order to strike terror into the vanquished, was commonplace.

Among the most charismatic of the European leaders were King Richard I ('the Lionheart') of England, Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II ('Barbarossa') and King (later St) Louis IX of France. Succeeding generations have offered differing judgments on their level of failure or success, though the prevailing view seems that a mixture of tactics and good luck served them well – as it does any military commander. Richard emerges particularly well from this account, proving a wise commander - and if harsh at times, certainly no more cruel than his peers. He was also a cultured personality, and one who might have been destined for greater things had he not been distracted by family intrigues at home.

So the crusades continued, with victory for one side and then for the other. (I was heartily grateful for the two-page chronology at the end of the book). Hard-fought and with enormous loss of life on both sides, they ultimately ended in failure for the western, or Christian, world with the fall of Acre in 1291, leaving Palestine in Muslim hands. In his conclusion and analysis of the legacy of the crusades, Asbridge sees them impartially as at the very least acts of Christian aggression as wars of defence. From his narrative, it is clear that neither side had a monopoly of wanton aggression towards the weaker foe, though what appears to us the last word in brutality today was all too commonplace in medieval warfare.

Finally, in an intriguing parallel with our own times, he refers in some detail to 'the longer shadow' of the World Islamic Front, which in February 1998 declared its intention to wage 'Holy War against Jews and Crusaders'. 9/11, as we know to our cost, was only the beginning. Yet again, history repeats itself.

Our thanks to Simon & Schuster for our review copy.

For more reading on the Christian and Muslim worlds, albeit spanning a longer era than this, may we also recommend Sea of Faith by Stephen O'Shea.

Buy The Crusades: The War for the Holy Land by Thomas Asbridge at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Crusades: The War for the Holy Land by Thomas Asbridge at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy The Crusades: The War for the Holy Land by Thomas Asbridge at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Crusades: The War for the Holy Land by Thomas Asbridge at Amazon.com.


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