Jonathan Sumption

The Christian Drang nach Osten

Text settings

God’s War: A New History of the Crusades

Christopher Tyerman

Penguin/Allen Lane, pp. , £

We are still living with the images and legends of the crusades. Were they, as the 18th-century Scottish philosopher David Hume wrote, ‘the most signal and durable monument of human folly that has yet appeared in any age or nation’? Were they, as muscular Christians and imperialists suggested in the 19th century, a matchless epic of human heroism, in which the defeat of the ‘right’ side had been happily reversed in their own age? Were they an immoral act of unprovoked aggression for which western Christians should apologise to the Muslim world, as the last Pope has rather absurdly purported to do on their behalf? Moral judgments, it is said, are not the historian’s province, but in this field they are hard to avoid. The casualties of the crusades, both human and material, were too high, the images too potent, the modern analogies too awful.

The main problem about the crusades, for contemporaries and moderns alike, is that the first one succeeded. By rights, the volunteer armies of Peter the Hermit, Ademar of Le Puy and Godfrey of Bouillon, which crossed a continent to occupy the birthplace of Christ between 1097 and 1099, should have been beaten for their presumption, as soundly as most of their successors were. In fact, they not only conquered much of Syria and Palestine, but founded states there that endured in one form or another for two centuries. If the maddest of the crusades succeeded so triumphantly in its objectives, then by what standard is one to condemn the others as pointless? If their objectives were immoral, were they any more so than any other armed migration? It is hard to blame the kings and popes of the Middle Ages for finding these questions hard to answer. Historians and moralists have done no better, in spite of having had five centuries to think about them.

Christopher Tyerman has written the most substantial history of the crusades since the great three-volume account published a generation ago by Steven Runciman. The two works could hardly be more different. Runciman was a patrician aesthete and hellenophile who surveyed the scene from a majestic height. The crusaders emerge from his pages as thieves and thugs of the most vulgar sort. He was inclined to forgive them for their attacks on Muslims. But he could not forgive them for their part in the destruction of the Byzantine empire, which he saw as the highest expression of mediaeval Christian civilisation.

Tyerman’s view is very different, mainly because he has made a more serious attempt to understand the crusaders’ motives. He tells us how the Church set about preaching the crusades, exploiting the perennial pessimism and guilt of the European nobility of the Middle Ages. He shows how crusading ideology penetrated the religious sensibility of the period, as well as its secular fiction and poetry. His crusaders were certainly no saints, and were happy to plunder what they could. But few of them would have embarked on such a dangerous and expensive venture without the conviction that they were saving their souls and that the means were completely consistent with the ends. As for the fate of Byzantium, Tyerman has no time for Runciman’s languid nostalgia. The empire was a broken husk long before the crusaders sacked Constantinople in 1204. Even the sack itself, which Runciman regarded as the ultimate expression of western greed and savagery, is presented here as flowing naturally from the folly of the governing cabals of the empire, who had made it impossible for the crusaders to cross into Asia without taking the city.

The sheer range of Tyerman’s research is astonishing. Geographically, he covers every significant recruiting area of Europe, instead of confining himself to the regions (mainly in France and England) which have the most colourful chroniclers. Moreover, although the heart of the book is a chronological narrative of events, it manages to be a great deal more than that. The author deals with military engineering, naval warfare, weaponry, logistics, horses, diet, dress, and a mass of other day-to-day issues which must have been constant preoccupations of the crusaders, but are largely ignored in other general works on the subject. Perhaps most important of all, he does justice to the later crusades, after 1215, instead of relegating them to the traditional hand-wringing postscript. They were launched after Jerusalem had been lost and were generally directed against Egypt rather than Palestine. But they were arguably the most intelligently conceived and organised expeditions of all.

God’s War resists the temptation to pontificate. It distributes no bouquets. It does not weep for missed opportunities or point out moral lessons. This is perhaps admirable. Christopher Tyerman writes for an age which distrusts rhetoric and for a culture without the self-confidence to praise or criticise. Inevitably, the result lacks the dramatic sweep of Runciman’s work. But of all the modern histories of the crusades it is the shrewdest, the most reliable and the most complete. The reader who misses the prejudices can supply them for himself. At least he is given plenty of material to do it with.