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Thursday, September 9, 2010

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'Holy Warriors: A Modern History of The Crusades', by Johnathan Phillips

Largely fantastic. A few small criticisms.

by Ferdinand III


 




Okay, this is probably the best one volume book I have yet read on the Crusades. I keep saying that after reviewing various works. But Phillips has done a magnificent job at presenting the full depth and breadth of the Crusades from Pope Urban's declaration in 1095 to initiate a counter-attack against Islam, until the defeat of the Hungarians and their allies at Varna in 1444 by the Turks. Indeed one of the best aspects of this book is the detail behind the various Crusades which occurred not only in the Holy Land, but also in Spain, the Baltics and the Balkans. Phillips' history thus puts the entire and quite variegated Crusading movement[s] in complete perspective. Vitally, he does not equivocate all that much in describing the rapacious imperialism of Islam [though he can be justly criticized for not putting the wars of re-conquest into perspective]. Nor does he soft-pedal Islamic Jihad or make vapid claims that Islam is peace. These facts make the book readable.

Phillips' volume, for all its erudite scholarship is not particularly large running to just over 350 pages. It is readable and will organized. It covers the 350 years of Crusading in chronological and geographical order. The characters are presented in their time and place – they are not assassinated by overlaying politically-correct cultural mores; nor are they romanticized as many are wont to do, when describing the 'sophisticated' nature [supposedly], of Muslim leaders [a fantasy but one often-told]. The events are factually portrayed and all references are well sourced. Phillips is a well-known scholar of Crusader and Medieval history, and it is hard to imagine anyone bettering this reasonably sized one volume narrative.

Many people are not aware that the Crusades were not just wars of faith against the Turkish, North African and Arab Muslims, but also wars initiated by the Catholic church to crush threats to the Roman papacy [the Cathars in southern France]; or to spread Christianity to the 'heathens' in the Baltics [the Teutonic Knights and the 250 year struggle in Eastern Europe]. Europe was thus engaged on many fronts during a period of quite innovative and at times rapid, social and economic change. The Dark Ages are of course a myth. Inventions stretching longer than your arm can be named and identified from 1000 to 1500 AD. In fact the entire Enlightenment and the creation of the modern period comes directly and is based solidly upon, the genius of the Medieval period. How interesting then to understand, that during this period of genuine revolutionary change in the political-social-and economic orders, that we see the great expansion of Europe to retrieve Christian lands, and spread the gospel far and wide. Whatever your opinion about these events, it is clear that such actions denote a vibrant, strong, and quite confident civilization willing to impose itself and dispense with the ideas that all things are relative, and tolerant diversity trumps all. One of the great benefits of reading this book, is that you are presented with the Crusades into their variegated totality across the map of Europe and the Near East. It does make for spectacular reading.

The first Crusade's victory at Antioch in June of 1098 for example, is one of the greatest untold stories in military history [or little told]. After a long march through Europe, harassed and attacked by their Byzantine 'allies' who provided little food, and no men; and surrounded by Turkish forces within the large city on the one-hand; and a large Turkish relief army on the other; it is truly a miracle that the small Christian army was able to first smash its way into the city, and then turn around and in open battle literally pulverize much large Muslim forces sent to crush the besiegers. It was a military display which challenged the limits of human endurance, fortitude and creativity.

After Antioch, Jerusalem the prime target of the first Crusade lay open. Phillips makes the claim that;

“By now the crusader force [first Crusade] had dwindled to around 1,300 knights and 12,500 footmen. They faced unfamiliar opponents because in August 1098 the Fatimid Egyptians had seized the city from their Sunni Muslim rivals......The conquest of Jerusalem was an astonishing achievement...”

The Crusader conquest of Jerusalem was indeed astonishing – almost as miraculous as their victory at Antioch in Syria. The incredible journey of 2 years; and the risks and challenges involved in the long march had been overcome. The citadel of Christ was again in Christian hands.

“They had liberated the holy city, now they sought to purge it of unbelievers.....The horror of these events has left an indelible stain on Muslim-Christian relations down the centuries.”

There was indeed a slaughter and some 4.000 men, women and children died. No one was enslaved however, or marched off to death camps or work camps – something that Muslims did whenever they took a city or a state through jihadic war. One of the few criticisms I would have of this book is that such claims that the barbarity displayed in Jerusalem 'impacted relations' between the West and East are facile, and not very rational.

The Muslims were the great purgers, destroying between 636 AD and 1099 AD literally millions of Jews and Christians through war, killing and slavery. The list of towns and cities sacked by Muslims in the Levant and North Africa in the 4 centuries preceding the Christian expedition to the Holy Land are remarkable, resulting in literally hundreds of thousands of dead, and millions forced into submission and some form of slavery. Medieval warfare's rules were straightforward. Any city which did not 'submit' to the attacker, would be open to 3 days of pillage and killing once taken. It happened in Jerusalem in 1099 and it happened in every campaign waged by either Muslims or Christians. The Muslims for example, killed and enslaved some 40.000 in 1453, when they took Constantinople under Mehmed II who in his copious writings never mentioned Jerusalem 1099. Muslim jihad needs no excuse. Mehmed was not sacking Constantinople because 'relations with the West were poisoned by 1099'. He looted it to pay his men and fulfill Mohammed's request that Eastern Rome submit itself to the moon cult. Islamic jihad is driven by the Koran and by the injunction from Mohammed to conquer the world – not by the Crusades.

For the most part however, Phillips dispenses with the crude and incorrect imagery of the Crusades, so in vogue in academia and Hollywood. According the neo-Marxists, the Crusades were Europe's expression of imperialism; were unprovoked [even though Islamic forces had invaded Spain in 722 AD]; barbarous; unproductive; and full of greed and criminality. In fact one of the most remarkable achievements of the Crusades in the Holy Land was the fact that the Latins were able to impose themselves on a polyglot mix of people and races; and that according to Arab and Muslim sources; non-Christians preferred living under Frankish rule rather than Islamic. Taxes were lower; regulations fewer, and freedom to do what you pleased enshrined. Massive castles were erected, engineering feats which astonished the Muslims. Mills, dams, bridges, roads, sewage systems were all built – nothing like it existed in the Muslim world. The Holy Land was in general quite poor when compared to the vibrant economies of Europe. That is the main reason why few Latins stayed, and no migration of people from Europe to Israel occurred. There was no point. The flow of specie was one way – from West to East. This is why by 1250 most in Europe had tired of the Holy Land expedition. As one academic reviewer commented:

Although Holy Warriors has been written for a general readership, its scholarship is meticulous and up to date. Phillips briskly discounts items of popular folklore about the crusades, such as the notion that landless younger sons formed a large part of the crusading expeditions to the East. Similarly, he does not think that it makes sense to regard colonialist land-grabbing hunger as an important motive for crusading. Most people who went on crusades were desperate to return home as soon as they decently could. Of the tens of thousands who took part in the First Crusade only about 300 knights chose to stay in the Kingdom of Jerusalem after the Holy City had been conquered.”

Indeed. This is true. The Crusades were a reply to Muslim aggression, war, slave trading and the Islamic desire to conquer the Mediterranean basin. They were largely spiritual and performed by the landed aristocracy and their paid followers – they were in fact a set of family oriented affairs. They are fascinating and even given the occasional limitations of Phillips' presentation, and the academic inclination to equivocate, this book should be viewed as a handbook, and source of research and information on the Crusading epoch.

 

 


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