Crusades Pick List
After finishing Thomas Asbridge's new book on the crusades, I rushed to update my earlier pick list. Here are ten books on the medieval holy wars you can't do without. Asbridge easily makes the top slot, with Tyerman a close second. Riley-Smith's atlas, of course, is stunning, probably the best atlas of any subject I've ever seen, and it's criminal for it to be out of print. I keep including Payne's popular treatment, even if he drops the ball on some points. The collection of primary resources edited by Elizabeth Hallam is a priceless tome, and I can't bring myself to dispense with Runciman's hostile classic, so he retains a place at the bottom.
1. The Crusades: The Authoritative History of the War for the Holy Land, by Thomas Asbridge. The best comprehensive treatment available and perfect sequel to the author's book on the First Crusade (#9). Resisting easy answers and simplistic formulas, Asbridge shows that Christian and Muslim motives weren't always what scholars assume. Asbridge is a shrewd thinker and sharp writer; it's impossible to put his books down. Particularly refreshing is the analysis of historical figures: there's no clear division of good and bad guys here; you're often unsure whether to dislike or warm to individual crusaders or jihadists -- or both. I recommend reading this book in conjunction with The Atlas of the Crusades (#3) for endless enjoyment; prepare to let dinners go untasted.
2. God's War: A New History of the Crusades, by Christopher Tyerman. The best in-depth analysis of the crusades to date. Tyerman demolishes myths about crusading motives, which had nothing to do with colonialism. Crusaders were driven by religious zeal, the desire to protect holy places and secure their salvation; the papacy by reform and power-politics as it sought control over secular authorities. The author shows how crusading didn't become popular overnight: enthusiasm waxed and waned for over a century before Innocent III established it as an institution with all the logistics formalized. When you've finished this tome, you'll feel like you've heard the papal bulls and gone on crusade yourself, and appreciate that moral indictments of the holy wars don't come easy. (See a complete review of this book here.)
3. The Atlas of the Crusades, edited by Jonathan Riley-Smith. The best atlas of the holy wars. Beautiful maps are punctuated with painstaking detail -- historical dates, battle sites, travel routes, castles & fortresses, monasteries & holy sites, cities and towns -- all set against the backdrop of splendid color-plating. The expeditions to the holy lands are charted in great detail, as well as those in Spain and the Baltic region. See how the Islamic world evolved and shifted under different caliphates, and how Christendom responded to recruitment for the holy wars. It's a crime that this is out of print: it's a visual bible, unlike Angus Konstam's Historical Atlas of the Crusades, which should be avoided.
4. The Chronicles of the Crusades: Eye-Witness Accounts of the Wars Between Christianity and Islam, edited by Elizabeth Hallam. Experience events through the eyes of those who were there: a tale of cannibals who roasted babies on spits; the account of the horrible fate on the Field of Blood; a rabbi's account of how Bernard of Clairveaux saved Jews from massacre; descriptions of the gradual "easternizing" of crusaders; a Muslim's contempt for Acre, "the city of Christian pigs"; Innocent III's letter of excommunication threats to the leaders of the Fourth Crusade; and much more. No fan of the crusades should be without this handsome selection of primary sources interwoven with modern essays.
5. The Dream and the Tomb, by Robert Payne. The best popular treatment of the crusades, and a personal favorite of mine. Focusing on the crusades in the holy lands (1095-1291), this book reads like a novel while mostly remaining true to history and primary sources. The chapters covering the time period of 1100-1187 are the best, sketching the six kings of Jerusalem in all their colorful personas: militant Baldwin I, pious Baldwin II, shrewd Fulk, charismatic Baldwin III, lecherous and unbelieving Amalric I, and brave, leprous Baldwin IV (Payne curiously drops the ball on Baldwin I, calling him a womanizer of all things; most scholars now recognize that he was probably homosexual). By the time Jerusalem falls to Saladin in 1187, you feel like the dynasty has become part of your family.
6. The Crusades: The Essential Readings, edited by Thomas Madden. An important assortment of scholarly essays, many of which broke important ground. Jonathan Riley-Smith -- the "E.P. Sanders" of crusades scholarship -- refutes myths of colonial crusaders, in particular the idea that crusaders were landless sons intent on carving out territories abroad. Tyerman's controversial article, "Were There Any Crusades in the Twelfth Century?", argues that prior to Innocent III (1198-1216) the crusades really weren't distinct from other forms of Christian warfare. H.E.J. Cowdrey's classic "Pope Urban's Preaching of the First Crusade" also finds a place in this collection.
7. Fighting for Christendom, by Christopher Tyerman. The best introduction to the crusades, for anyone who wants to learn about the subject in two or three sittings. This is a prelude to Tyerman's later crowning achievement, God's War (#2), about one-tenth the size, though there's nothing superficial about it. The conclusion addressing supposed parallels between 9/11-conflicts and the crusade & jihad is excellent. Modern western imperialists are anything but "crusaders", and the al-Qaeda network, far from "medieval" in its techniques and ideology, is as modern as the World Wide Web.
8. What Were the Crusades?, by Jonathan Riley-Smith. The crusades have been either incorrectly or too ambiguously defined, and Riley-Smith explains them with precision. A crusade was (1) a voluntary and temporary vow to wage warfare in the defense of Christian places or people; (2) approved by the pope; (3) penitential, whereby the participants received remission for the penalties of confessed sins -- as well as a package of related temporal privileges, including church protection of family and property, immunity from lawsuits and debt interest. Crusades weren't confined to the holy lands; the wars fought in Spain and the Baltic region were also crusades. This book justifies the definition.
9. The First Crusade: The Roots of Conflict Between Christianity and Islam, by Thomas Asbridge. A vivid account of the most important and successful crusade. With juggernaut pacing and firm scholarship behind it, the book invites the reader to experience the First Crusade in all its horrors, disease, starvation, massacres, and miraculous visions. It puts the reader right on medieval soil, where warriors slaughtered for their salvation and treasured holy relics above land and booty. And it offers the best and most succinct explanation for Urban II's motives in preaching the crusade.
10. A History of the Crusades (3 vols), by Steven Runciman. Hostile and misleading, this three-volume classic retains its place on a top-10 list for its elegance and thorough detail. A detailed history from the old school of thought, portraying the crusaders as greedy and barbaric colonizers over against an enlightened Byzantine empire which the Latins ultimately diminished, thus paving the way for an Ottoman takeover. "And the Holy War was nothing more than a long act of intolerance in the name of God, which is a sin against the Holy Ghost." We've come a long way since Runciman.
11. The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam and the Crusades, by Robert Spencer. I throw this one in as a bonus and perhaps to counter Runciman with the other extreme. Spencer is no scholar and gets some things seriously wrong, but he does correct a lot of silly PC myths about the crusades -- for instance that Christianity and Islam are for the most part "equivalent traditions", that jihadists like Saladin were benign sweetie-pies, and that crusaders were land-hungry colonizers motivated by greed. I particularly like his bruising of Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven film -- about as historical as The DaVinci Code -- which portrays a sentimentally tolerant Islam during the time of the crusades. On the not-so-bright side, Spencer offers some counter-myths -- like the crusades being primarily defensive conflicts, Christianity being inherently benign and Islam inevitably nasty, etc. See my full review (and Spencer's reply) here.