Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

God’s War: A New History of the Crusades
by christopher tyerman
belknap, 1,040 pages, $35

Not too many years ago, single-volume histories of the Crusades were a rarity. Bookstores were crowded with volumes on the Civil War or World War II, but there was little on medieval battles fought in faraway lands. That all changed on September 11, 2001. Within a few days of the attacks on the United States, the Crusades were pulled from obscurity and plastered across the world’s front pages. Al Qaeda made them an issue by directing its attacks against “American Crusaders.” When President George W. Bush, while speaking about the war on terror, used the “C-word” in its common usage as a “grand enterprise,” the medieval Crusades finally reached stardom. They even got their own movie: Kingdom of Heaven, directed by Ridley Scott and starring heartthrob Orlando Bloom.

All of this created a new market, and authors were not slow to fill it. Today there are rows of general histories of the Crusades. Many, it is true, are written by people with no expertise in medieval history or even basic competency in the languages necessary for research on medieval topics. But professional Crusade historians have also responded to the market-particularly the classroom market-for almost every medieval historian in America is now expected to teach a course on the Crusades. Some historians, such as Jonathan Phillips or Thomas Asbridge, have even written books for a general audience, seeking to bridge the gap between what historians know and what most people think about Christianity’s holy wars.

Like many of the academic newcomers to this market, Christopher Tyerman has a solid pedigree as an accomplished and respected scholar in the field. Yet, unlike the others, he is not seeking simply to put one more history of the Crusades on those now crowded shelves. Instead, one cannot escape the impression that his thick new opus, God’s War, is meant to be the “new Runciman.” (Steven Runciman’s three-volume History of the Crusades, although published half a century ago, still remains popular. It is said that Runciman once joked that, aside from himself, the only other author to have made more money for Cambridge University Press was God, with his book, the Bible. If the publicity blurbs for God’s War are any indication, Harvard University Press is hoping that Tyerman will have the same success.)

Tyerman is not unaware of this, although he is quick to disclaim any such comparison: “It would be folly and hubris to pretend to compete, to match, as it were, my clunking computer keyboard with his [Runciman’s] pen, at once a rapier and a paintbrush; to pit one volume, however substantial, with the breadth, scope and elegance of his three.” Protests aside, his one substantial volume could easily be divided into three that would rival Runciman in weight, if not elegance.

And that is where we come to the real problem. For all his errors, biases, and quirks, Runciman wrote something that remains a work of art. He produced a narrative in which the people, places, and times came vibrantly to life. Tyerman, on the other hand, has written a very long commentary on the history of the Crusades. For Tyerman, history is frequently just a vehicle for making a point. For Runciman, it was something to be told.

Given Tyerman’s previous scholarship, God’s War is a bit of a surprise. In his 1998 book, The Invention of the Crusades, Tyerman argued that the Crusades did not exist much before the pontificate of Innocent III (1198-1216), thus implying that the First, Second, and Third Crusades were nothing of the sort. This theory did not find much scholarly support at the time, and Tyerman seems to have dropped it. (The merest whimper of the thesis can be discerned when he states that crusading was “reinvented” after the loss of Jerusalem in 1187, or when he refers to Innocent’s contribution to the Crusades as “a sort of creation.”) Indeed, Tyerman follows the standard framework of Crusade histories-offering sections on the First Crusade, the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, and the Second, Third, and Fourth Crusades. These are followed by chapters on crusading in Europe, Louis IX and the decline of the Latin Kingdom, and finally the post-1291 Crusades.

Although the chapters are arranged chronologically, the historical narrative is not. Tyerman has an annoying habit of jumping from one part of his story to another. It is rather like listening to a record player with someone repeatedly moving the needle to new locations. As a result, if readers do not know the story of the Crusades ahead of time, they will likely be lost. Tyerman writes almost like his medieval sources, describing a few events and then heading off on narrative tangents. People, places, and events are pulled from across the spectrum of medieval history to make whatever point seems necessary.

For example, when describing the command of the First Crusade on the way to Constantinople, Tyerman has no problem switching his discussion to much later events when the Crusade was camped before Antioch. The astonishing conclusion of the Fourth Crusade is not told as a crescendo (as, in fact, it occurred) but fully described at the beginning of its story. Emperor Frederick II’s conduct in a restored Jerusalem is described before Tyerman even tells his reader about the treaty that restored it. For a specialist, this approach is acceptable. For someone simply wanting to learn about the Crusades, however, it is less so-as though Tyerman expects his reader to be well-versed in the history of the Crusades before reading his history of the Crusades.

That does not mean that the book stumbles in other respects. Tyerman brings to God’s War the fruits of his own research in the vibrant field of Crusades studies. This is a book that medieval historians will want to read with care. It is, in fact, the first major work of its kind fully to take into account modern historiography, and, for the most part, Tyerman’s conclusions are well grounded on the evidence and right on the mark. There is no getting around the fact that he is a first-rate historian.

There are those occasions, however, when I find his arguments and approaches troublesome. For example, Tyerman frequently notes that religious motives or pious idealism played roles in the Crusades but only as a qualifier to subsequent descriptions of political and economic motives. He is insistent that piety and greed were not contradictory in the Middle Ages, which is quite correct. We hear, however, much more about the greed than about the piety. Indeed, it is surprising how little religion seems to figure in Tyerman’s Crusades.

It is perhaps telling that, when describing the Christian background of the movement, he notes that “religious beliefs crucial to such warfare placed enormous significance on imagined awesome but reassuring supernatural forces of overwhelming power and proximity.” The root of this approach is Tyerman’s conviction that Christianity was a religion of peace that was led to embrace war by the “so-called Church Fathers,” popes, and propagandists. He accepts the old saw that Pope Urban II cleverly devised the First Crusade to further his own power and agenda. That Urban’s own words, as well as the words of the Crusaders themselves, described the Crusade as a response to Turkish attacks in the East is for Tyerman evidence only of the pope’s political skill. There was, he insists, no real threat from the Turks in 1095. Although he admits that contemporary sources like al-Azimi mention Muslim attacks on Christian pilgrims, for Tyerman these reports “invite suspicion.” He suggests instead that, although Turkish attacks had not actually increased, the larger number of European visitors to the East brought more attention to them. Yet surely this sort of “Turks will be Turks” argument would have carried less weight when the attacks were actually occurring.

One is often left with the feeling that no one in the Middle Ages believed what they said-unless what they said was cynical or wicked. Throughout God’s War, popes are endlessly manipulating texts, fears, and beliefs for their own worldly ends. Crusade preachers are generally hucksters or confidence men. Muslim leaders fare no better. Saladin’s personal beheading of Reynald of Chatillon “satisfied the needs of propaganda rather than anger.” When Jerusalem fell to Saladin in 1187, the sultan “milked the symbolism of his triumph.” Without denying worldly concerns, is it not possible that some of these medieval people may have actually believed in the idealistic motives they proclaimed?

Tyerman’s description of the decline of crusading is quite good. He argues that the rise of secularism brought down the power of the Church, thus ultimately pulling the plug on the Crusades. As Tyerman succinctly puts it: “Christianity thrived; Christendom was dead. With it died one of its most distinctive features, the Crusade.” This is true as far as it goes, although it does not address the continually diminishing Muslim threat, which made Crusades less necessary. Although the Christian world changed, Tyerman explains, the Muslim world did not. “Thus Islam’s holy war, the lesser jihad, remains a modern phenomenon. The Christian Crusade, except in the mouths of certain meretricious academics and unthinking politicians, does not.” (As an academic himself, Tyerman is careful not to neglect the customary jab at the political right.)

God’s War is without doubt a significant achievement. Like Steven Runciman’s famous history, Tyerman’s tome will have an important impact on the scholarly historiography of the Crusades. Unfortunately, its effect on public perceptions of the Crusades is likely to be much more modest.

Thomas F. Madden is professor of medieval history and chair of the department of history at Saint Louis University.