Minoo Dinshaw

The Crusades live

Jeffrey Lee’s enthusiasm for 'God's wolf', Reynald de Chatillon, is both exhilarating and troubling

The 12th-century crusader Reynald de Chatillon was one of the most controversial men of his time, and his new biographer Jeffrey Lee believes he has returned to disturbing relevance in ours. Over a relatively long life with a dramatically violent end, Reynald became Prince of Antioch by marriage, endured 16 years in a dungeon below Aleppo, attempted (uniquely in Islamic history) to raid Mecca and Medina, overturned the politics of the Crusader states, and became the bitterest enemy of Saladin.

Reynald probably could not read or write, but had he tried his bloodstained hand at Blairesque apologetic memoir, the result might well have resembled Lee’s book. Like Reynald, Lee possesses a memorable style, flashy and crass by turns. Like his subject, beside whom he fights with increasing loyalty, Lee is pragmatic, persuasive, unpredictable and fearless. And like Reynald’s career, Lee’s book is packed with enjoyably full-blooded episodes and details, but disastrous in its wider implications.

Lee, a former broadcast journalist unflustered by anachronism or cliché, with an endearing penchant for historical flash fiction, falls into a perilously widespread delusion from his wholly compelling opening onwards. He recounts the haunting story of a 2010 al-Qaeda bomb forestalled by Saudi counterespionage en route to Chicago, hidden inside a FedEx box addressed to ‘Reynald Krak’ (an allusion to Reynald’s final political role as Lord of Kerak).

The moral Lee extracts from this rather Reynaldian piece of attention-seeking is that ‘the Crusades live’. Here, at least, al-Qaeda and Isis agree with him. There will never be a chance of defeating and disenchanting Islamism while overexcited westerners bestow on their enemies the status they claim and covet: that of being one side in an unbroken, irreconcilable cultural clash.

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