National Catholic Register

Education

Consider the Crusades

Weekly Book Pick

BY Vincent Ryan

August 21-27, 2005 Issue | Posted 8/21/05 at 12:00 PM

 

CRUSADES: THE ILLUSTRATED HISTORY

Edited by Thomas F. Madden

University of Michigan Press, 2004

224 pages, $35

To order: (800) 621-2736 or press.umich.edu

The rhetoric of Osama bin Laden and other Islamic radicals, the current strife in the Middle East and a recent big-budget movie (Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven) have all helped bring about a renewed interest in the Crusades. Unfortunately, the newfound focus on the historic clashes has also resulted in the revitalization of old myths and polemics.

For Catholics, this misinformation is nothing new, as these medieval wars are often the basis for criticism of the Church. In his 2003 book The New Anti-Catholicism, religious historian Philip Jenkins noted the absurdity of presenting the Crusades as a singularly Western evil or a Catholic crime, suggesting, “This interpretation is so persistent because it has become so invaluable a component of the critique of Catholic Christianity.”

Ignorance of the true nature of the Crusades is also partially rooted in a failure by specialists to convey historical research to a popular audience. In fact, a novelist, a journalist and an ex-nun have written of some of the most popular mass-market books on the subject. The past several years, however, have witnessed a concerted effort by scholars to cross over into the somewhat taboo terrain of historical writing for a general audience. Crusades: The Illustrated History is one such example.

As the editor notes in the introduction, the book aims “to satisfy the popular desire for answers about the Crusades with the fruits of years of exacting historical research. The professional historians assembled here have each made significant contributions to our understanding of the Crusades — and here they have written fascinating narratives that reflect the latest conclusions of modern scholarship.”

Eight established Crusades scholars contribute to the book's nine chapters. The writing is lively and accessible; the section on the legacy of the Crusades is particularly noteworthy.

The problem with viewing these events primarily through a modern lens is also addressed. One historian explains that “to seek to force the medieval Crusades into nationalist, colonialist or racist molds is to distort their fundamental character.”

The engaging narrative is complemented by an impressive array of more than 150 full-color illustrations, photographs and maps. Chapters also feature occasional sidebars and boxes, which consider some intriguing asides — St. Bernard and the Jews, the legends of Saladin, Mark Twain in the Holy Land.

While this is the rare coffee-table book that effectively combines style with substance, there are a few minor flaws. The biggest shortcoming is probably the chapter titled “Crusades in Europe,” which gives short shrift to many of these campaigns. The discussion of crusading in Spain and the Reconquista is especially disappointing, since these wars contributed significantly to both the evolution of the idea of holy war and to the acceptance of crusades in regions other than the Holy Land.

Furthermore, they were also the most militarily successful aspect of the crusades — a success that still irks radicals like bin Laden, who refer to this as the “Andalucian Atrocity” and believe Spain should return to Moorish rule. It is regrettable that only four pages are devoted to these 700 years.

Then again, this book is not intended as a comprehensive history. Instead, Crusades is a first-rate introduction that dispels myths while providing a narrative grounded in current research.

We often hear the saying that history is written by the victors. Thankfully, in this instance, it's being written by the historians.

Vincent Ryan, a graduate student in medieval history, writes from St Louis, Missouri.