The First Crusade: The Call from the East by Peter Frankopan

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The First Crusade: The Call from the East by Peter Frankopan

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Category: History
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Richard T Watson
Reviewed by Richard T Watson
Summary: A history of the need and call for a First Crusade, rather than of the Crusade itself. In The Call From the East, Peter Frankopan seeks to reverse centuries of western dominance of the Crusader narrative. Occasionally smitten by and uncritical of his hero, the Byzantine Emperor Alexios I, Frankopan puts the Crusade into the context of a faltering Christian Empire and recaptures some of the Byzantine political motivation for a European campaign to Jerusalem.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: March 2013
Publisher: Vintage
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0099555032

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At the now famous Council of Clermont in November 1095, Pope Urban II responded to calls of distress from the eastern Byzantine Empire by issuing the dramatic call to arms that sparked the First Crusade. But there are at least two sides to every story, especially in history. Western histories of the Crusades have concentrated on that Council and the journeys of Crusaders across Europe: Peter Frankopan's The Call from the East instead draws attention to Emperor Alexios I Komnenus and the plight of his Byzantine Empire.

Western histories of the First Crusade tend to focus on the armies of the French and other European nobility that responded to the Pope's call by marching east in 1096. But as the modern translator of the Alexiad, an account of the life of Byzantine Emperor Alexios written by his daughter, Peter Frankopan redraws the history of the campaign from an eastern perspective and challenges some long-held assumptions along the way. Using a variety of sources not often considered in Crusade history – European monks, as well as Byzantine accounts and the Alexiad – Frankopan paints the First Crusade as a final, desperate roll of the dice by an emperor under threat from all sides and an empire teetering on the brink of collapse. No longer is the First Crusade simply an act of European military piety, but a deft political move to not only save the Empire in the east but to heal a potentially devastating rift in the church in the west.

As Frankopan points out, the Crusaders themselves – and subsequent historians – have told the story of the Pope starting the Crusade, and have pushed the Byzantine Emperor into the shadows, with tales of broken promises and treachery from their host in Constantinople. Frankopan's account rehabilitates the Byzantine Emperor's reputation, and puts his call for help into the context of repeated attacks and rebellions through the 1080s and 1090s. The first half or so inverts the accepted Western historical perspective by pushing the westerners to the edges of the story and making Alexios I in Constantinople a central and sympathetic figure. It's an important point in understanding the context of the First Crusade.

But for all his noble intentions to repair Alexios I's reputation in the wake of politically-motivated Crusader criticism, Frankopan's narrative has its weaknesses. He argues that the Crusade unravelled after the (warning: spoilers) capture of Antioch, which – ironically – is the point when his narrative begins to unravel and the attention to detail that characterises his account of the Empire before 1096 disappears. The story starts to skip ahead and adopts a more western approach of following the European army and their internal squabbles rather than the Emperor in Constantinople

The great strength of the first half of The Call From the East is how it considers the Crusader army as a bunch of foreign soldiers coming from the west, and not just as western knights heading east. After Antioch (or even after the fighting starts), it becomes a story of an army abroad. As such, The Call From the East is much more successful as a history of the Crusade's context and not of the Crusade itself, or of its aftermath.

Frankopan provides a compact and accessible account of the two decades leading up to the First Crusade, suitable for the casual reader of Medieval history. He's maybe too prone to making assertions in the text and then leaving the reader to find evidence in the extensive endnotes and references – but that at least leaves an uncluttered text for the casual reader, while the more hardcore student can dig around for themselves. In fact, digging around for yourself is probably worthwhile even as a casual reader; Frankopan is recasting the Crusade from an eastern perspective, so there's a value in considering it alongside the western perspective. At a time when interactions and conflict between a nominally Christian West and nominally Islamic East are so topical and fraught, it's worth considering both sides of the story. What we need now is the Turkish perspective...

For a more Western-heavy reading of the Crusades in general, you might try The Crusades: The War for the Holy Land by Thomas Asbridge.

Then again, you could also follow Frankopan's example and challenge your assumptions about western narratives, maybe starting with Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes by Tamim Ansary.

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DJ Prevatt said:

Really glad I came across your review. You lay it out well.

DJ Prevatt